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Philosophy 31060, section 001 (CRN 10024)  T/R 12:30 -1:45, Bowman 220


            The main goal of the course is to introduce the student to the history and logic of philosophy’s ways of thinking about the aesthetics of the fine arts from classical Greece down to the present.  We approach these goals through readings, lectures, class discussions, quizzes, and papers that integrate experience with study.  One theme this semester will be art as creative response to the actuals and potentials of beauty on all levels, material, intellectual, and spiritual.

Text: (1) Stephen David Ross, ed., Art and Its Significance, 3rd edition, State University of New York Press, 1994.  ISBN: 0-7914-1852-9.

Evaluation.  Evaluation is based on, first, participation (attendance on time, with the reading done, and alert for interaction, 10%).  We are a community of inquiry, and our interaction has a life of its own; so you are expected to attend regularly, be on time, have the reading done, and be ready to participate with a qualification: you can miss four classes and still get full credit, but if you fail if you miss eight.  If you miss a class, it is your responsibility to get notes from someone else, to ask the instructor if you still have questions, and to ask the instructor for whatever may have been handed back during your absence.  In addition, there are four quizzes (10% each) and two papers (25% and 25%).

Papers must be well written to receive a C or above.  For a quick introduction to some of the standards, see http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/papers.htm .  Writing—a skill that schools sometimes fail to teach—is important for your career, especially when so much communication is mediated by machines.  English is a first or second language in many nations, and to use the language well is a service to our world.  If I don’t fuss about writing, you should see what some folks hand in!  So I fuss, and I generally get quite decent writing.  It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Writing Center (http://dept.kent.edu/english/WritingCent/writngcenter.htm). Speaking of communication, the University obliges you to check your kent.edu e-mail (or whatever address may be used on Flashline).  If I have messages to send to the whole class, e.g., to change an assignment, or keep in touch in an emergency, I will use those addresses.

My office hours are MWF, 10:55-11:55 and TR 10:40-11:40 (Bowman 320H) and by appointment (330-672-0276; e-mail: jwattles@kent.edu).

Syllabus and notes: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/esthetic.htm

Other notes on Plato, e.g.,: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/classes.htm


Schedule of Activities


I. Tuesday September 1.  Introductions: to one another, to the course, to philosophy, to aesthetics, and to the concept of truth.


Classical Greek aesthetics: The reality of beauty

Thursday.  The main focus for today is the short dialogue of Plato (347-427 BCE) titled the Ion (pp. 45-55).  Is Ion successful because of inspiration, craft, or manipulating his audience—and what are Plato’s concepts of these alternatives?  Read also on the concept of craft two pages from the Collingwood selection, 192-193.  When have you felt most inspired?


II. Tues. 8.  This week’s reading load is heavy, so consider starting early on the assignment for Thursday.  Study closely the selection from Plato’s Symposium.  How is our passion for beauty to be understood?  What relations are suggested between beauty, truth, and goodness?  Why does Plato present stages on the way to the realization of beauty?  What peak experiences of beauty can you recall?  How do they relate to this list?  Read also the web notes on this dialogue: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/sympos.htm .

Thurs. 10.  For today, read from the selection from Plato’s Republic, pp. 9-32.  Socrates challenges art which merely manipulates the emotions.  Read a modern version of a similar critique in the text selection by Theodor Adorno.  Read the first half (through the diagram of the analogy between the sun and the good) and also the two “arguments”—philosophic reasoning with one or more premises and a conclusion—regarding censorship and the arts: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/republic.htm .


III. Tues.  15  Finish the selection from the Republic.  Socrates cherishes art arising from the quest for truth.  Read the reference to Plato’s example by Arthur Danto, pp. 470-74. Thurs. 17  Aristotle pp. 66-76.  The beauty of tragedy as a matter of proportion, size, and order.  Quiz 1 (30 multiple choice questions that require you to understand and reason).


Modern aesthetics: The role of mind

IV.  Tues. 22  Immanuel Kant (German [actually Prussian: Germany was not a unified nation until 1870] 1724-1804) pp. 95-103.  How do our judgments regarding beauty relate to our cognitive involvement with truth and our practical commitment to goodness?  Print out and read the web notes on Kant, reading day by day (from the instructor’s notes, not those of Burnham that precede them) what relates to each assignment. 

Thurs. 24  Kant, 103-113.  How can judgments regarding beauty that are largely grounded in the structure of the human subject a kind of universality and necessity?


V. Tues. 29  Kant, 113-120.  In what way is the sublime said to going beyond the beautiful?

Thurs. Oct 1, 120-33: How can artistic beauty symbolize moral regard for all humankind?  Read also art critic Clive Bell, pp. 186-90, for an example of formalist aesthetics.


A spiritually integrated aesthetics of nature

VI.  Tues. 6  John Muir (1838-1914) and the beauty of physical harmony (reading to be supplied).

Thurs. 8  Quiz 2


Fine art as portraying supreme truth—for its historical age

VII.  Tues. 13  Hegel: a (reading to be supplied).

Thurs. 15  . . . (Paper 1 due on the experience and concept of beauty.)


Art as disclosing the world of the work

VIII. Tues. 20  Martin Heidegger, 254-264.  How does the work of art set forth a world?  How does the tension (cf. contrast) of earth and world manifest in the work?  Do we live in a world dominated by technology?  If so, is there any visible path beyond such domination?

Thurs. 22  264-80.  What do truth and beauty have to do with the work of art?


Art as a paradigm of experience

IX. Tues. 27  Dewey: the dynamism of an aesthetic experience

Thurs. 29  . . .


Virtues of artistic living

X. Tues. November 3  Aesthetic virtues (reading to be supplied)

Thurs. 5  . . .


Psychology and art

XI.  Tues. 10  Carl Jung

Thurs. 12  . . . Quiz 3


Postmodernism and aesthetics

XII.  17  Jacques Derrida, 411-420 (with lecture on the other parts of The Truth in Painting).  Limits to language and to some traditional categories.

19  429 ff. (and following pages) Letter to Peter Eisenman.  Ethical challenges to formally attractive architecture.


XIII. Paper 2 due on artistic living.

26 Thanksgiving


Analytic aesthetics

XIV.  December 1 Danto

Thurs. Dec 3 . . .


XV. Tues. 8  Goodman

Thurs. 10 . . .

Final Examination, Wednesday, December 16, 12:45-3:00.


Note: KentLink offers online the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and the British Journal of Aesthetics.



            The official registration deadline for this course is 9/13.  University policy requires all students to be officially registered in each class they are attending.  Students who are not officially registered for a course by published deadlines should not be attending classes and will not receive credit or a grade for the course.  Each student must confirm enrollment by checking his/her class schedule (using Student Tools in FlashFast) prior to the deadline indicated.  Registration errors must be corrected prior to the deadline.  The last day to withdraw is 11/08.

University Policy 3342-3-01.3 requires that students with disabilities be provided reasonable accommodations to ensure their equal access to course content.  If you have a documented disability and require accommodations, please contact the instructor at the beginning of the semester to make arrangements for necessary classroom adjustments.  Please note, you must first verify your eligibility for these through Student Accessibility Services (contact 330-672-3391 or visit www.kent.edu/sas for more information on registration procedures).

The Philosophy Department Grievance Procedure for handling student grievances is in conformity with the Student Academic Complaint Policy and Procedures set down as University Policy 3342-4-16 in the University Policy Register. For details of the grievance procedure, please see the Departmental Chairperson.



Project one

            The projects for the course engage the student, first, in the discovery of beauty and, second, in the active response to beauty (potential and actual), artistic living.  The first project on the discovery of beauty emphasizes the theme of the harmony of contrasts, and the student will explore harmony in various domains and levels.

The first domain is nature.  What are the beauties of the physical creation?  What is the beauty of physical harmony?  On this topic, a week in the course is devoted to the exposition and philosophical critique of John Muir (1838-1914); I will e-mail you an essay on his aesthetic pioneering and post a summary on our course website to give you something to read from which to get some ideas quickly.  For an experience to write about, please find an example other than that of Socrates in the Symposium, where the aesthetics of nature appears only regarding the human body.

The second domain to explore is the beauty of truth.  As you sharpen intuition on the way to insight—whether in science, philosophy, or spiritual experience—you will have (more or less) peak experiences of realization, and these will have an aura of beauty around them.  They do not all gleam in the same shades and tones, but notice the beauty of truth and how truth harmonizes the contrast between you and the object, between various levels of your own being (think of the maturing individual climbing Diotima’s ladder), and between you and God or the ideal.

The third domain to explore is the beauty of goodness.  As you experience persons doing good to one another, or to you, or you doing good to them, notice also the beauty of goodness, and try to give voice to that.  Again, notice how goodness harmonizes contrasts between persons, potential tensions within the agent, and the contrast between the agent and God or the ideal.  For this project, write on something you do for another person or for others (and sail past the self-consciousness involved).

The fourth domain is that of the arts.  Reflect on how the work you have chosen leads the mind from emotion to the thought of the ideal or of divinity, if you are able to discern such a process in it).  Goethe is reported to have said, approximately, “The high mission of any art is, by its illusions, to foreshadow a higher reality, to crystallize the emotions of time into the thought of eternity.”  In addition, reflect on how the work unifies the contrast between the artist and the viewer, listener, or reader and how it harmonizes the contrast between the human and the divine or the ideal.

When you find beauty in the harmony of contrasts, take time—fifteen to twenty minutes—to allow the experience to enter deeply into your being.  Experience the various kinds of harmonization of contrasts, and provide your memory with something vivid to recall and refresh you for years to come.  Take notes on your discoveries so that you will have the resources you need when the time comes to write the paper.


As the due date approaches, write down your experience report, with (roughly) two pages describing the overall experience throughout the project period, then two pages devoted to the beauties of the physical creation (and or evolution), one page each for beauty found in truth and goodness, and finally two pages for beauty found in the arts.  The experiences should come from the project period.  If you wish to return to earlier discoveries—it is often helpful to oneself and to one’s readers to write an account of a peak experience—you may add pages as a preface to the experience report.

After writing the experience report, construct a commentary on it from the perspectives of Plato (two pages) and Kant (two pages).


            Here is a rubric describing levels of achievement correlated with grades on the various parts of the assignment.


Part I.

A.  The experience report shows that the student has been active throughout the project period in exploring beauty in the four domains indicated and has been able to articulate genuine discoveries in each area. 

B.  The report indicates some sincere effort in the direction of the project, but the report indicates an experience less sustained, less wholehearted.

C.  The project experience seems to have been brief and half-hearted and shows little discovery.  Just enough exploring was done to have something minimal to answer the requirements of the assignment.  The description of the beauty of harmony in the various domains lacks the freshness of personal engagement.

D.  The report indicates a severe misunderstanding of the assignment.

F.  The report gives little or no evidence of effort along the lines of the assignment.


Part II.

A.  A full four pages deals with at least two brief quotations each from Plato and Kant.  The discussion goes beyond notes from class and show a thoughtful study of the assigned readings.  Each quote is interpreted, and its relevance to the project experience is clearly indicated.

B.  The discussion is accurate but largely a restatement of what was said in class.  There is some attention to showing the relevance of the quotes to the experience report.

C.  The commentary is too brief, and it does not draw on the text except to cite information already given out by the instructor—it gives no evidence that the student read the text.  Passages are cited from the text with very little commentary explaining their relation to the experience report.  There are some significant misinterpretations of the text.

D.  The paper indicates a severe misunderstanding of the assignment.  The student complains of problems that should have been discussed earlier with the instructor.

F.  The paper gives little or no evidence of effort along the lines of the assignment.


Weighting: Part I, 50%; Part II, 40%; English: 10%—unless the English is very poor (see the syllabus: a D+ may be given in extreme cases).  See http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/papers.htm (the link is at the top of the classes page) for some pointers on writing.  These proportions are customary; in some cases the instructor may give additional weight to an outstanding section.


Project Two: Artistic Living

 Sometimes we are clumsy and grouchy, sometimes skillful and grouchy, sometimes clumsy and joyous.  Artistic living is skillful and joyous.  How can the study of philosophical writings on aesthetics, amid the various ways in which it stimulates intellectual development, help us live artistically?  Our appreciation for beauty can be intuitive or reflective.  Aesthetics stimulates greater reflective depth, which will enhance our subsequent intuitive enjoyment of beauty and our ability to find productive paths of reflection.

In addition, we can inquire what virtues of aesthetic excellence we see in persons in the arts—and also in persons whose lives are excellent even though their emphasis is not on the arts.

Our second project for the term engages us in the creative response to beauty (potential and actual), artistic living.  Beauty correlates with the feeling of delight or rejoicing.  What difference might artistic living make to your voyage in truth?  In goodness?  (Here are excerpts from a book on the golden rule that you may find helpful: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/GRquotes.htm.)  As one who appreciates and cultivates the beauty of the natural and built environment?  A student and teacher of the arts?

For the project, continue in your areas of truth, beauty (in the natural and built environment), and goodness, and write a paper similar to the last, expressing your experiences during the project period in each of these areas—as you did previously.  Then write a commentary on the experience report from the perspective of at least two of the following philosophers: Hegel, Heidegger, Dewey, Derrida, and those you encounter in the handout for Week 10.  For each of the the first two of the philosophers you select, draw on a few brief quotations, making clear in a two-page discussion how each quotation has implications for how the philosopher might respond to your experience report.  If you want to construct a briefer response afterwards on behalf of one or more additional philosophers, you are welcome to do so—even a paragraph would be welcome.  Remember that your job is to express the philosopher’s view of your writing, not your view of the philosopher’s writing.

Aesthetic virtues observable via biographies of Johann Sebastian Bach include cultivation of talent, keen intellectual development, ability to teach, ability to express emotional and spiritual depth, a sense of humor, excellence in appreciating the works of others, excellence in design, and excellence in performance.

Since I’m now giving a seminar, “Bach, Jesus, and Artistic Living,” I’m minded to share with you some ideas proposed to my other class.  Here’s the podcast of the first one: http://ksutube.kent.edu/playback.php?playthis=4msa3664. Aesthetic virtues that may be found in the Jesus of the New Testament include the following.  Jesus showed a positive attitude to life as a whole.  “I have come that they may have life and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).  Jesus had some bright spots in his genealogy (Matthew 1, Luke 3, John 1) but never lorded it over the less gifted.  Jesus developed to become a craftsman (a carpenter) and a master teacher.  His intellectual prowess was only rarely explicit (Mark 12.18-27).   Jesus had emotional and spiritual depth and a sense of humor (Mark 12.13-17).  Jesus appreciated excellence in others (Luke 7.28—John the Baptist).  Jesus was excellent in design (great decisions in the wilderness not to use his powers for self-nourishment, nor to pursue the kingdoms of this world, nor to indulge in sensational violations of natural law (Matthew 4, Luke 4).  Jesus was excellent in performance.  Jesus’ life was free of fear and anxiety.  “Happy are they . . .” (Matthew 5 Beatitudes).  “Do not be anxious (Matthew 6:24-34).”  “Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14.1). “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives to do give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14.27).  Jesus’ art form was the parable, and he could enact a parable—as in washing the feet of the apostles—as well as telling a parable (Matthew 13, John 13).  Jesus’ life was spontaneous (improvised healing ritual, John 9).  Jesus expressed beauty in symmetry with truth and goodness (The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep [John 10]).  Jesus found beauty in humble phenomena—the beauty of the goodness of the poor widow’s contribution of two copper coins (Mark 12:41-44).





First steps with the concept of truth

What is truth?  The question is huge and calls for an answer that draws on the fullness of the one who answers.  Will the answer begin with philosophical reflections on statements like “The cat is on the mat,” or with religious statements, or somewhere else?   This philosophy celebrates truth in its simplicity and also truth in its complexity in science, philosophy, and religion.  The following pages offer an introductory overview so that the reader will not get lost by trying to build a unified concept from pieces studied in abstraction.

 I asked aesthetics students, most of whom had no background in philosophy, to write their concepts of truth as part of a project in which, in addition to the study of philosophers and the consideration of works of art, we were exploring the idea of artistic living.  The inquiry had to do with beauty’s relations with truth and goodness.  In asking, “What is truth?” I assumed that everyone had some peak experience of insight, some major realization, even if that experience had since been forgotten or rejected.  To begin by bringing to mind one’s own grasp enables the inquiry to be grounded, less passive, and more in touch with one’s own experience.  Sydney Jordan’s response appropriately highlights goodness before coming to her core insight regarding truth.


            For me, truth is a feeling of satisfaction.  Not in the way of feeling full and satisfied after a meal, but rather a sense of wholeness.  For example, my family has a rather large garden that we work every summer.  This past summer was the first time I was allowed to have a crop of my own.  The feeling I got from the start when the ground is first turned to the harvest is a sense of completeness.  At the end of each session in the garden I am dirty, sweaty, and tired, but it is my hard work and dedication that produces something good.  People that do what I do need determination, hard work, patience.  Being in the garden every summer is a truth for me.  We plant it, care for it, wait, and it grows then feeds us and others.  Truth is what is there when all of the fancy is taken away.  Truth is understanding the value of things, that all things have value and are in some way connected.


The meaningfulness of her insight, her truthful connection with reality, will become increasingly evident as we proceed.[i]  A person who takes the time to recall, interpret, and express like this at the beginning gains greatly, since the result anchors inquiry in experience, simplicity, and insight.  To be sure, the progress of inquiry brings expansion and often revision to the initial concept.

A sharp contrast with the previous answers is seen in this poem by Allison Johnson.




Full of knick knacks

Left-overs from late night snacks

Stale and salty

Yet we eat them anyway

Choking the jagged edges down

We take it

After all

I am not devouring it

It is devouring me


With each and every bite

It gets harder and harder to swallow

To gag down the truth

How do I know?

I feel it

Confined all the tears

As am I

Till they come rushing out of my stale

Now salty eyes


The poem leaves several possibilities of interpretation intriguingly open.  First, the concept of truth may be ironic: “truth” is official truth, a straight-jacket, needing to be rejected by an honest recognition of how distorting, rigid, and hurtful it is—in other words, a lie.  A second possible interpretation is that truth here is all-too-real and recognized as such but resisted because of its unwelcome implications for a soul that remains torn.  A third possibility is that truth is being confused with fact.

A depressed person who was lucid and on the verge of making positive changes said, “I’m running away from truth because it’s so horrible.”  This was the moment to draw a distinction.  Facts can be ugly, but truth is something different.  We take a step into truth just by looking at the chain of causes that led up to the ugly fact.  There is an intelligible process here, and in an evolving, progressing universe, causes do not merely perpetuate themselves in a linear way.  Ugliness does not last forever.  Now a big-picture concept of evolution requires adding philosophic and spiritual components to scientific ones if it is to have the leverage that truth in its fullness can have.  But if those components are present, the resulting concept of truth is not something to gag down but something to savor.

It is a fact that some persons are overwhelmed by the question about truth, and some doubt the very concept of truth itself.  There are so many competing versions of truth.  Isn’t it all relative to what a person happens to believe?  Will the doubts and difficulties drive the concept of truth from the field or force it to retreat, or will they stimulate us to find a way to respond that does not suppress those difficulties but dissolves them?

            The contrast between truth as embraced by Jordan and “truth” as rejected by Johnson is that in the first case truth is found to be livable.  Indeed, this difference functions as a criterion that distinguishes the genuine article from what is false.


[i] Sydney Jordan was a student in Kent State University’s aesthetics class in the Fall of 2008, and the quotation from her paper is used by permission.  The following poem by Allison Johnson, a student several years earlier, is also used by permission.



One way to classify some of philosophy's sub-disciplines


Truth (aletheics, to use a rare term)

Beauty (aesthetics)

Goodness (ethics and political theory)

Here are some of philosophy's subdisciplines in the realm of truth:



Plato (Greek, 427-347 B.C.E.)

Our class on the Ion took wings from your fine preparation and participation and from these questions:

How many of you have cultivated skill in the arts or are cultivating skill in the arts?

What is involved in that cultivation?

How many have performed?

What is involved in excellent performance?

According to what we find in the Ion, what is involved in an art in the classical Greek sense, a  techne (pl. technai)= art, craft, skill?


            In order to interpret poetry, what kind of knowledge to you need?

            Knowledge of what the poet is setting forth. 

            What are the two alternatives that are explicit in this text that explain Ion’s great success?  (1) he has techne, including the full knowledge implied; (2) he is inspired from a superhuman source.

            Sometimes we talk about an inspired performance.

Has anyone ever had an experience of being ín the zone?

Has anyone ever had such an experience during an aesthetic practice?

This experience has recently been termed “flow (high challenge meets high skill in high performance)” as a result of the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 


Technē, audience manipulation, and inspiration in Plato’s Ion and Laurence Olivier’s On Acting


For Plato, the difference between sophistic and philosophic art, between base manipulation and nobility in the arts, hinges on the relation to truth.  The sophist is skeptical about the very concept of truth, and sophistic art neglects truth, whereas philosophy lives in the supreme desire for truth and brings forth art out of the quest for truth. 

Plato’s Ion introduces us to a conversation partner for Socrates who is a boastful, intellectually inept, but prize-winning reciter of Homer.  Ion reveals himself as an emotional manipulator for money, lacking both technē and inspiration.  In contrast with the comparatively elementary the analysis of the relations of concepts that Plato gives in the Ion, Laurence Olivier, the leading Shakespearean actor of the middle twentieth century, suggests a more subtle analysis in his book, On Acting.  Olivier’s analysis may in some way give a clue to a more advanced and Platonic conception of the relation of technē and inspiration.


Passages from the Republic implying a philosophical kind of art

            To illustrate the neglected thought that Plato advocates a kind of art for truth-seekers, consider the following passages from Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates refers to what he does in terms of the arts.


“Suppose, then, that someone came up to us while we were painting a statue and objected that, because we had painted the eyes (which are the most beautiful part) black rather than purple, we had not applied the most beautiful colors to the most beautiful parts of the statue.  We’d think it reasonable to offer the following defense: “You mustn’t expect us to paint the eyes so beautifully that they no longer appear to be eyes at all, and the same with the other parts.  Rather you must look to see whether by dealing with each part appropriately, we are making the whole statue beautiful.”  Similarly, you mustn’t force us to give our guardians the kind of happiness that would make them something other than guardians.” (Rep. 420c, Grube trans., in Cooper, ed.).


“Do you think that someone is a worse painter if, having painted a model of what the finest and most beautiful human being would be like and having rendered every detail of his picture adequately, he could not prove that such a man could come into being?”  /No, by god, I don’t.’ Then what about our own case?  Didn’t we say that we were making a theoretical model of a good city? 472d. Grube/Cooper


“The question you ask needs to be answered by means of an image or simile./ And you, of course, aren’t used to speaking in similes!/ Are you making fun of me now that you’ve landed me with a claim that’s so hard to establish?  In any case, listen to my simile, and you’ll appreciate all the more how greedy for images I am.   What the most decent people experience in relation to their city is so hard to bear that there’s no other single experience like it.  Hence to find an image of it and a defense for them, I must construct it from many sources, just as painters paint goat-stags by combining the features of different things.” (488 Grube/Cooper, p. 1111).


“When the majority realize that what we are saying about the philosopher is true, will they be harsh with him or mistrust us when we say that the city will never find happiness until its outline is sketched by painters who use the divine model?” (500d-501c)


“Like a sculptor, Socrates, you’ve produced ruling men that are completely fine.”  “And ruling women, too, Glaucon . . . .” (540c Grube/Cooper, 1155)


Recall, furthermore, that Socrates portrays the form of the good not dialectically, but by a series of images—the sun, the divided line, and the allegory of the cave.


Acting and truth

            Olivier strongly and repeatedly insists that the core of acting is dedication to truth.


The actor should be able to create the universe in the palm of his hand.  (24)

The actor creates his own universe, than peoples it—a giant puppet master.  The trick is to make the audience feel that they are observing reality, and this isn’t easy, because to convey the word that has been placed in your mouth to a great number of people you have to exaggerate subtly, ever so slightly highlight.  Lead the audience by the nose to the thought. (29)

Truth . . . speak the truth, though the verse will not entirely take care of itself. (84)

 I was heroic [as Henry V]—no one could have been more so—but I was truthful, I was not showing off.  I played the man like a trumpet as clearly and truthfully as I knew how. (96)

Strindberg is veritas [=truth], perfectly straightforward, no undercurrent, no subtext, no sneaky, subconscious underneath thought that he is either unaware of or hiding from himself. (325)


The following quotation expresses a concept of truth that leans in the direction of relativism that is inconsistent with Plato, for whom truth is not mine or yours; rather my belief may be true or not; my seeming insight may be genuine or not, and it is the truth itself which is the criterion of belief and insight.  “In the end, it has been myself I’ve had to turn to, believe in and listen to.  When the time comes, it is you, and only you, who knows your truth” (368).


Technē and audience manipulation

            It is not clear that Plato would credit Ion with a technē comparable to that of a physician, say, for his ability to manipulate an audience.  Ion is found to lack technē , which implies practical knowledge, since he cannot interpret and evaluate other poets who portray the same things that Homer portrays, nor does he have special knowledge of military gear and tack for horses that Homer describes.  Since he lacks knowledge, he lacks technē, and Socrates ironically credits him instead with being inspired.  Ion embraces and confirms the alternative.  “When I tell a sad story, my eyes are full of tears; and when I tell a story that’s frightening or awful, my hair stands on end with fear and my heart jumps.”  Then Socrates asks Ion whether being inspired would make one out of one’s mind.  This is where Ion agrees with Socrates (against what I think Plato wants the academy reader to see as irony) that to be inspired implies being out of one’s right mind.  Ion embraces the ironically offered extension of Socrates’ proposal.  To test this hasty agreement, Socrates asks whether Ion is aware that he produces the same effects on his audience, and then the unintended self-revelation occurs.  Ion says, “I look down at them every time from up on the rostrum, and they’re crying and looking terrified, and as the stories are told they are filled with amazement.  You see I must keep my wits and pay close attention to them: if I start them crying, I will laugh as I take their money, but if they laugh, I shall cry at having lost money.” (535c-d; Paul Woodruff trans. In John M. Cooper, ed., Plato’s Complete Works [Indianapolis, Indiana; Hackett, 1997]).


            Here are a few selections from what Olivier has much to say about manipulating an audience.


The actor must keep an audience engaged by constant changes of inflection; he must keep them forward in their seats; he must have an acute sense of when he is boring them, when they are about to yawn or look at their watches, wondering when the interval is coming; he must know the instant he has lost their interest.” (134)


Members of the audience should be respected; they must never be underestimated.  It’s very easy to sneer behind your handkerchief and wink at your fellows in the wings, but among that sea of faces beyond the footlights some will know.  It is the same wherever you go, in all forms of entertainment: you respect them, they may respect you.  They can be manipulated, of course, but that’s something else.  This they enjoy, this is why there are here; but they must not be handled clumsily or obviously.

Breathing in the thick, warm air, feeling the expectancy of the house as it waits for your next moment.  Timing a pause for perfection.  Feeling the lungs bellow in and bellow out as the voice hits the heights of its power.  Never giving too much; always making them want more.  Making a gesture and holding it, knowing that all eyes have moved with you.  Hearing laughter as it moves through the theater like a giant wave, aware that it has been caused by you.  Knowing that tears are there for the asking.  Controlling every eye in the house, making  your thoughts theirs.  Taking them on the journey with you,  369/70  lending their ears to your mind.  Frightening them, exciting them,, loving them, holding them in the palm of your hand, Lilliputians and Gulliver.  Cuddling them, cajoling them, caressing them.  Without them you do not exist.  Without them you are a man alone in a room with memories and a mirror.  Without them you are nothing.  An actor without an audience is a painter without a brush.  Of courser you can always perform in your head, but where’s the satisfaction?

As I’ve said before, it starts at the very beginning by the family fireside, where the child demands attention: “Look at me . . . look at me. . . .”  Once attention has been achieved, it’s the keeping of it that’s important.  It is then that the talent to amuse, entertain, provoke shines through: you can soon see who are going to be actors and who stage managers.  It is then that you can see the future.

Never underestimate the audience, never patronize them.  Because if you do, they will know.  They are far more intelligent than you may think.  They pay your bills and fill your stomach.  Without them you are in an empty room again with a bare cupboard.  You must always treat them with respect, be they one or a thousand.  If the house is small, never give a small performance.  Never cheapen yourself or your profession.  It is one of the oldest and best.  Remember the court jester: he didn’t dare perform badly; he was always on the high wire. (369-70)


Technē, inspiration and sub-philosophical motivation

            Olivier did not write On Acting to justify himself before Platonic standards.  “All actors are egotistical and competitive—that’s where we get our energy” (343).  Nevertheless, it is reasonable to say that Olivier knows what inspiration is in the theater.  He reports one such experience at Elsinore in Denmark, where Hamlet was to be performed outdoors, but where pouring rain forced a quick restaging in the ballroom.  The busy director, Tyrone Guthrie, left the task of arranging things to Olivier.


There is nothing better than a group of actors being presented with a problem of this kind and having to improvise.  When time is drifting away and the performance is getting closer, somehow the release of adrenaline creates an excitement that runs through everyone, from the leading actor/actress to the maker of the tea.  The entire company pulls together with the one object in mind.  It is at such times that you can ask for the impossible, and get it.  “I’m afraid the only way you can play this scene is by hanging from the chandelier, dear boy.”  Without a moment’s hesitation, the reply would come back, “Of course—no problem.”

Great God! there is something amazing about them, the band of players.  There is a comradeship that I have experienced only once elsewhere, but no so happily, in the Services.

Somehow every performance seems to be enhanced in times of unexpected difficulties; there is an edge, a fine edge that hoists the players, even the least inspired, onto another level.  All the actors’ motors have to be running, but in a low gear for greater acceleration.  Nobody dares get a moment wrong.  Whereas laziness, even boredom, may have crept in before—and this is very understandable when you think in terms of standing night after  night on the end of a spear with somebody else delivering the dialogue that you feel you could do better—that boredom, for a moment, is forgotten and the contribution becomes genuine, energetic, and electric.  Everyone becomes a Thoroughbred, muscles alive and alert.  The vibrations are high, and this will affect the audience as well.  What they witness will be a night that they will always remember. . . . 

Whether or not what the audience sees is good we will never know, but the energy that is directed toward them will engulf them in its euphoric state.  In Elsinore that night, the actors were heroes, every man Jack of them.  I know—I was right in the middle of it.  A dignity and excitement was achieved, an atmosphere in which no one falls on his arse unless it is intended.  Everyone thrills with a sense of achievement and importance—and quite rightly.  The “one for all” society syndrome.  Above all, the performance was spontaneous. (86-88)


A synthesis beyond the dichotomy of the Ion

In one passage Olivier suggests a synthesis of Socrates presents, perhaps ironically, in the Ion as a stark alternative.


A good actor is working on at least three levels at all times: lines, thought, and awareness of the audience. (26)


Focus on the lines is part of the actor’s technē, insofar as a basic kind of knowledge of text is required.  Focus on the thought expresses the actor’s bond with truth, including the actor’s knowledge of what insights the lines convey.  Focus on the audience is sustains another awareness that is essential to effective communication and aesthetic success.  It is unreasonable to expect persons not to be motivated at all by secondary goods such as money and self-gratification by means of impressing the audience.  Olivier lucidly admits how great is the motivation of vanity, not only in himself.  However, so long as vanity does not usurp loyalty to truth, the just order of the soul prevails, and an actor may be judged philosophical by Plato’s own standards.  And when a company thrills to the challenge of a performance, then inspiration, technē, and keen awareness of audience may thrive together.  Why should Plato not have believed that he saw that very synergy in Socrates?


Regarding the selections from the Republic . . .

            First, here's some background in ancient Greece of “the quarrel between philosophy and poetry.”  Poetry in general (poiein = making) is distinguished from poetry as a specific techne (art, craft, know-how).  “There is more than one kind of poetry in the true sense of the word—that is to say, calling something into existence that was not there before . . . but all the same, we don’t call them all poets, do we?”  Poetry is “the one particular art that deals with music and meter”[as they pertain to speech].  (Plato Symposium 205b)

Some ancient Greeks regarded the best poetry as inspired by a superhuman source (e.g., a “muse”).  The Greeks themselves cherished no holy book, and they did not take religion as seriously as the peoples of the Middle East who have since then believed themselves to have a divinely revealed book.  Nevertheless, they did cherish their poets, especially Homer and Hesiod, as the literary sources of their traditions about the gods.

The poets conceived of the gods as similar in form to human beings, anthropomorphic, superhuman in power and immortality, normally invisible, yet able to take on various appearances, so as to be able to pursue their strategems under the guise of some human figure.  They attributed excellent qualities to the gods, and also behavior humanly scorned: murder, adultery, castration of the father by the son, mutual intrigue, petty jealousies, vengeance.

The “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” emerged as philosophers challenged traditional ideas about the gods.  The philosophers deanthropomorphized the concept of God.  Xenophanes (fl. 530 B.C.E.) wrote, “Both Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all things that are shameful and a reproach among mankind: theft, adultery, and mutual deception” (Fragment 11).  “Ethiopians have gods with snub noses and black hair; Thracians have gods with grey eyes and red hair.”  “Of oxen (and horses) and lions had hands or could draw with hands and create works of art like those made by men, horses would draw pictures of gods like horses . . . .”  He moved in the direction of monotheism, not seeking revelation but persistently inquiring, gaining results that were plausible at best, not certain.

Heracleitus called his hearers and readers to wake up to the logos common to all and to God as the unity of opposites.  He wrote, “Homer deserves to be flung out of the contests and given a beating,” and “Much learning does not teach one to have insight; for it would have taught Hesiod.”

Socrates challenged the coherence of Euthyphro’s notion of acting to please the gods, interrogated contemporary poets and found them unable to explain the meaning of their work, showed up the tragedian Agathon as a charming narcissist, showed his respect for the Delphic oracle by trying to refute it, and challenged Athenian smugness on the basis of his own philosophic insight and spiritual experiences.  Socrates was sent to his death by an Athenian jury, having been brought to trial by Anytos, a representative of Athenian poets, and Meletus, who (taking Socrates for a sophist) accused Socrates of atheism and of corrupting the youth.

Plato criticized the poets insofar as they offered emotionally influential images without basing their work on knowledge of the truth of the eternal forms: the just, the beautiful, the good.


            Consider the following two arguments (philosophers use the term “argument” to refer to a sequence of statements such that the conclusion is said to follow from the premise(s).)  Argument analysis is one of the skills cultivated by philosophers.

            This first argument is a simplified reconstruction of Plato’s argument in the Republic.

Premise 1: If poetry portrays divinities as unworthy (e.g., being deceitful and petty and engaging in morally repulsive acts such as adultery), or if poetry portrays sons of the gods as flooded by cowardly emotion, then such poetry tends to corrupt human character.

Premise 2: The state should censor poetry which tends to corrupt human character.

Conclusion: Therefore, the state should censor poetry which portrays divinities and sons of the gods as unworthy.

Please observe that one can reject the conclusion because of disagreement with the second premise, while being open to whatever grain of truth there may be in the first premise.  Remember that there is often some degree of irony in what Socrates says, and that, in the end, Homer is accepted back in, so to speak.  Thus the prohibition against such poetry in Book II melts away in Book X.

Now consider a second argument.

            Premise 1: Plato held that there are eternal and divine standards of truth, beauty, and goodness and that poetry should be written with regard for these standards.

            Premise 2: Plato advocated censorship, which is a repressive and totalitarian betrayal of human liberty.

            Conclusion: Whoever makes a claim to eternal standards of excellence is suspect of having a tendency to be repressive and totalitarian.

            Some people talk as though they might be implying some such argument; but the argument is invalid, for one reject censorship and thereby avoid the conclusion, even while upholding premise 1.

            I have chosen problematic arguments from opposite sides of the question; wisdom involves being able to find grains of truth wherever they may arise, and to be critical of errors that may crop up in arguments that may seem to provide support for one’s own conclusions.

To consider the issue further, let’s ask whether young persons or adults can be harmed by what connoisseurs would classify as a work of art?  If so, what follows?  Let’s try to break down this emotional question into a variety of questions in order to think in a more thorough way about the issue.

Can persons be harmed?

What concept of human nature, interests, or destiny is involved in the notion of harm?

Can persuasion (obvious or subtle) promoting anti-values harm persons?

Does art inevitably influence our valuations?  Does it sometimes try to do so?

Can art harm persons?  By cheering on deliberate revolt against what is acknowledged to be good?  By denying the reality of central values?  By appealing to one-sided valuations?  By dogmatism in promoting values?

In discussing these questions many people make empirical claims where, research in psychology and related fields is relevant.  In seeking wisdom, it is well to recognize when empirical claims are made or implied, to consider what kinds of research are relevant to those claims, and to learn something about the research or at least to acknowledge our ignorance of the research. 

Is there an opportunity for parents, schools, and communities to give guidance regarding the arts?

Is there an obligation for parents, schools, and communities to enforce restraints regarding the arts?

            Is it a mistake to be paternalistic towards someone as old as a teenager?  Does it matter how many persons are harmed or how likely the harm is, or how many persons value the exercise of freedom more liberally defined?

Do artists have responsibilities?  To truth (which may be different from popular opinion)?  To beauty (as distinct from what is sensational?)  To goodness (not the same as moralism)?

To recipients have responsibilities?  To be open, to persevere, to appreciate, to screen (for self or others), and to make considered judgments about what they see?

            Do critics (including teachers, exhibition commentaries) have responsibilities?  What sort?


Regarding the selection from Plato's Symposium

Please see notes on the web: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/sympos.htm

In the Symposium translation used in our text, Jowett butchers a key passage on p. 62.  Here's a better translation by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff: “First, if the leader leads aright, he should love one body and beget beautiful ideas there; then he should realize that the beauty of any one body is akin to the beauty of any other and that if he is to pursue beauty of form he’d be very foolish not to think that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same.  When he grasps this, he must become a lover of all beautiful bodies, and he must think that this wild gaping after just one body is a small thing and despise it.”

            In the excerpt from the Symposium in the Ross anthology, Socrates will speak first of the being and nature of Eros, and then of his works (56c).  Diotima proved Eros neither beautiful [“fair”] nor good.  Intermediate.  Neither mortal nor immortal, but one of the spirits [daimon] mediating and communicating and interpreting between mortals and the gods (57b).  Originated in Plenty and Poverty (57c).

            Eros is desire for the beautiful . . . to possess the beautiful (58c) [one of the ways toward the good and happiness which each desires for himself (59b)], which they can only love if they take it to be good (59c).  

            Eros is “love of the everlasting possession of the good” (59c).

            Eros seeks “birth or procreation in beauty, whether of body or soul” (59d)

            Love is of immortality (60b): physical . .

            Those who are more pregnant-creative in their souls than in their bodies (61c) bring forth wisdom and virtue, which brings order to states and families; and they devote themselves to the education of young persons.  


On the Ion, note the difference between the knowledge for which Homer is reputed and the knowledge Homer lacks.  Nor is Ion inspired, despite S’s ironic praise, since he shows himself a crafty manipulator of crowds.  Nevertheless, the image of inspiration flowing from the muse, to the poet, through the e.g., rhapsode (performer), to the audience is suggestive of an insight in philosophy of mind to which Plato never obviously returns in the dialogues.  Note the concept of techne = know-how (a certain knowledge is involved, not merely a knack), also translated craft or art (but not to be confused with poesis, making).

In the Republic, grasp that Socrates’ critique (how much of this character’s critique is Plato’s?) of “mimetic” poetry (mimesis=imitation, in Kant’s terms, representation) is that it fails to seek the truth of the things that it copies from the natural world and thus characteristically tends toward simply arousing the lower emotions to gratify the masses and tends toward error in conceiving the character of divinity (God should be perfect, good, wise, beautiful, all knowing) and the grandeur of genuine character achievement (the hero should not be afraid of death, but resolutely courageous).  Socrates is continually dropping words that suggest his self image as a poet, but one who seeks the truth (the eternal forms—you may look at the early portion of this: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/forms.htm though it was never required nor presented as a handout, but some of the thoughts there were expressed in the lectures).  The eternal pattern (the bed in heaven—how marvelous to sleep on! [irony here?]) is deliberately conflated with the eternal form (bedness/the structure of the bed that the carpenter must know (but not the mimetic artist).  Then there is the bed that the carpenter makes and the bed represented in painting.  Presumably, the Platonic artist would make a point of learning something of what the carpenter knows (if not the techne, at least the blueprint). 

            Plato’s opponents were the sophists, who denied the forms, denied any eternal truth, any transcendent beauty or goodness, and who asserted cultural difference (in today’s terms, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”=the version Kant criticizes, “Everyone has his own taste”) as the last word on the question of standards.


            Plato does not teach the aesthetic view that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  That view not only makes the point—which all philosophers recognize—that people differ in what they find beautiful.  That view also claims that there is no standard beyond individual opinion (anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s).  Plato holds that there is an eternal form of beauty, “the beautiful itself,” which is not a subjective affair of what any person happens to prefer.  According to Plato, some are more advanced than others in their realization of beauty.  What I did say was that Plato recognizes the grain of truth in that theory when he implicitly acknowledges that people’s views differ regarding the beauty of bodies, customs, and so on.

            Let me also clarify that Plato never says that everything is beautiful.  The beauty in beautiful bodies is akin, he says; but this is not to say that every body is beautiful.

            Even the Navaho concept of walking in beauty implies that we humans have a responsibility to restore beauty.




“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

These quotes raise the issue of relativism—the philosophical view that truth is relative to the person holding the particular view.  According to relativism, “She believes that P” means “P is true for her”; and to say, “P is true” may be misleading insofar as it omits the reference to the person(s) holding the belief that P is true.  Truth is just an affair of personal or cultural belief.

Beliefs differ of course, depending on personal differences, cultural differences, and so on.  The fact of differences in belief or opinion is acknowledged by everyone in the debate.  What distinguishes the relativist is the relativist’s view that the fact of differences in belief is given decisive philosophic importance.  In other words, it doesn’t make sense to talk of truth except as the view of one side or other of the debate.  In other words, there is no standard of truth, no ideal standard, no divine standard, no cosmic truth to which various views are more or less adequate.  Opinion is all there is. 

            The non-relativist replies: just because people differ doesn’t mean that one of them can’t be wrong.  When there is clearly a right answer to a particular question, we see that the fact of disagreement doesn’t make any difference about what’s true.

            Relativism may be extended from judgments about what is true to judgments about what is beautiful or good.  Thus there is no standard of beauty, just preferences; it would not make sense to say that one person’s aesthetic judgments are more mature or better cultivated than someone else’s.  Beauty and goodness are not real; they are merely the projected correlates of preferences.  Thus if we express a view about the moral horror of Nazism, a relativist may say, “Well, that’s the belief of your culture.  The Nazis felt otherwise.”  Note: as a statement of fact, the observation is indisputable.  The relativist uses that observation of fact as though it humiliates the critique of Nazism.

            Some criticize relativism for making rational disagreement impossible, since, according to relativism, there are no criteria to which one can appeal that are not merely relative to one’s personality or culture.  If we disagree, we can either tolerate the other (e.g., the Nazi’s are free to do their thing—who are you to judge?!), or we can fight.  However people do sometimes effectively criticize and persuade one another, and older and poorer ideas do sometimes eventually get changed.  This also happens across cultural differences.  It would seem that people’s value intuitions have more in common than the relativist is prepared to acknowledge.

            Nevertheless, it is important to explore how people may reasonably differ in their judgments about truth, beauty, and goodness.  One need not embrace either relativism or a monolithic and static conception of truth, beauty, and goodness.  To some extent one may posit convergence, as evolutionary progress gradually brings views closer and closer.  To some extent, one may recognize differences that tend to endure; perhaps there are certain aspects of many-sidedness that are structural, deep, and are properly represented by differing perspectives on truth, beauty, and goodness.  Insofar as these perspectives are intelligible to all, e.g., tendencies to emphasize certain values more than others, then the prospect for mutual comprehension and cooperation in seeking wisdom remains open.  Insofar as such differences are thought to be incommensurable, the relativist is vindicated.


Interlude: The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus--a drama of human kinship

            The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.E.) begins with the arrival of a ship bringing fifty Egyptian women and their father/spokesman to the shores of Argos.  They seek protection from pursuing Egyptian men who would force them into “impious marriage.”  The women introduce themselves to Pelasgus the king of Argos by revealing their kinship with the Argives, their special claim to protection.  They narrate their genealogy, a lineage that Aeschylus may not have meant the discerning among the audience to take literally.  To portray these dark Egyptian women as kin to the Argives, as equally the descendants of Zeus, is Aeschylus’ spiritual insight.  In modern terms, the universal fatherhood of God is the source of the brotherhood of man.  Even after accepting that the women and their father are originally also Argives, the king has a decision to make, and he is in the throes of uncertainty.  From the outset we were reminded that the will of Zeus is “not easily traced.  Everywhere it gleams, even in blackness.”  The king acknowledges, “I am at a loss, and fearful is my heart.”  The king’s dilemma is that if he protects the women, he risks destructive war with the pursuing Egyptians; if the king does not protect them, the women threaten suicide upon the altar for suppliants, a move that would bring and divine retribution.  What is needed to clarify the decision?  “We need profound, preserving care, that plunges/ Like a diver deep in troubles seas,/ Keen and unblurred his eye, to make the end/ Without disaster for us and for the city . . . .”  In the moment of decision, the crucial factor is “the height of mortal fear,” making the king unwilling to offend Zeus, who is also a suppliant like these maidens.  As the king turns to appeal to the people (who sustain his request), he expresses his discovery of the principle of goodness that governs this situation: “Everyone,/ To those weaker than themselves, is kind.”



Nicomachean Ethics.

Three functions of reason:

1.     theoretical (theoria): grasping the eternal truths which are so basic that they cannot be derived from any higher premises  and reasoning rigorously to conclusions.

2.     making (poesis): bringing something into existence; techne as know-how.  Note that poesis in the broad sense includes all the arts (just like “art,” in the broad sense in English).

3.     doing (praxis): fully human action, pursuing reflectively chosen goals through reflectively chosen means, exercising excellence (e.g., courage, self-mastery, justice) so as to activate the potentials of a noble life.



Classification and description of the arts is the basis of (philosophic) science.    Comedy, Epic, Tragedy (definition, p. 70) (which has

the unity of time “endeavors to keep as far as possible within a single circuit of the sun” (70),

the unity of plot: an action that is complete in itself, a whole with a beginning, middle, and end (72);

the unity of character: the person must act in a way that would be probable or necessary, given that type of character.

“The character of the protagonists should be consistent, and the action should be the sort of action those characters would produce under those circumstances. The time of the action should also be unified, so that the plot can be held in memory as one action.”  http://www.rowan.edu/philosop/clowney/Aesthetics/philos_artists_onart/aristotle.htm

November 7, 2005.


“Imitation” (mimesis) means setting forth, representing in a broad sense (not necessarily copying).  The term does not have the connotations of superficiality that it has in Plato.  Neither is Aristotle as idealistic as Plato.  The poet represents actions of persons with various kinds of character.  Note that even when the things themselves are painful to see, “we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art” (68).

            The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus drama begins with the arrival of a ship bringing fifty Egyptian women and their father/spokesman to the shores of Argos.  They seek protection from pursuing Egyptian men who would force them into “impious marriage.”  The women introduce themselves to Pelasgus the king of Argos by revealing their kinship with the Argives, their special claim to protection.  They narrate their genealogy, a lineage that Aeschylus may not have meant the discerning among the audience to take literally.  To portray these dark Egyptian women as kin to the Argives, as equally the descendants of Zeus, is Aeschylus’ spiritual insight.  In modern terms, the universal fatherhood of God is the source of the brotherhood of man.  Even after accepting that the women and their father are originally also Argives, the king has a decision to make, and he is in the throes of uncertainty.  From the outset we were reminded that the will of Zeus is “not easily traced.  Everywhere it gleams, even in blackness.”  The king acknowledges, “I am at a loss, and fearful is my heart.”  The king’s dilemma is that if he protects the women, he risks destructive war with the pursuing Egyptians; if the king does not protect them, the women threaten suicide upon the altar for suppliants, a move that would bring and divine retribution.  What is needed to clarify the decision?  “We need profound, preserving care, that plunges/ Like a diver deep in troubles seas,/ Keen and unblurred his eye, to make the end/ Without disaster for us and for the city . . . .”  In the moment of decision, the crucial factor is “the height of mortal fear,” making the king unwilling to offend Zeus, who is also a suppliant like these maidens.  As the king turns to appeal to the people (who sustain his request), he expresses his discovery of the principle of goodness that governs this situation: “Everyone,/ To those weaker than themselves, is kind.”


David Hume (Scottish, 1711-1776), Of the Standard of Taste


            How can we sharpen our intuitive appreciation for beauty in the fine arts?  This, I propose, is a legitimate and helpful question to help us use Hume’s classic essay in this course.  The core of Hume’s answer is at the bottom of p. 87 (paragraph 23).  He discusses an objection on p. 88 (par. 24-27) and a major qualification 89 (par 28.


Introduction, waking up the question. 

“On account of the great variety of taste, which prevails in the world . . .” (p. 78, par. 1) “it is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another: (p. 80, par.6). 

Two common views checkmate each other: (1) that every sentiment is right (p. 80, par. 7), and that some writers are obviously superior to some others (p. 80, par. 8).

The inquiry begins anew on p. 81, par 9.  The rules of composition are based upon experience and are “general observations, concerning what has been universally found to please in all countries and in all ages.”

But people often do not make judgments of taste accurately, since “those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require . . . many favorable circumstances to make them [operate] easily and [accurately].  In order to judge beauty one needs

“a proper time and place”;

the imagination must be in a proper situation

 . . . and mood. 

“a perfect serenity of mind,

[with one’s thoughts collected],

[paying proper] attention to the object. [p. 82, par. 10]


Homer pleases universally; when the obstacles to proper judgment are removed, beauties are robustly manifest (p. 82, par.11).

            There are “certain general principles” [principle: a very broad term, not restricted to a proposition; it can also refer to a cause or an origin] of approval and disapproval. 

1.  One’s senses must be healthy and unimpaired; even one’s general health affects one’s responsiveness to beauty.

2.  One needs an uncommon delicacy of imagination (p. 83, par. 14-15), which is a mental sensitivity to qualities in objects that produce particular sentiments.  Nothing escapes the notice, every ingredient in the composition is perceived; thus one may produce general rules or acknowledged patterns of composition, which a true critic should be able to identify in each case in which it appears (16).  Delicacy of taste, a quick and acute perception of beauty and deformity, can best be detected by its response to works of art that are universally recognized as great and universally acknowledged principles (p. 84, par 17).

3.  One needs lots of practice with many works, moving beyond initial impressions by coming back to the work a number of times, evaluating the merit not only of the work as a whole but of each of its parts (p. 84-85, par. 18-19).

4.  One needs experience comparing different types of beauty, higher and lower (p. 85, par. 20).

5.  One must be free of prejudice so as to be able to set aside one’s own perspective to adopt that of the audience for whom the work was intended (which feat may take quite a bit of study), with due consideration for the purpose of that type of work and for the way the parts of the work form a unity (pp. 86-87, par 21-22). 

Indeed, good sense, sound understanding, is needed “to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent.”  (One must judge the accuracy of the reasoning that is implicit or explicit in the work and whether the characters speak appropriately to their character and circumstances) (p. 86-87, par 22-23)

6.  "The joint verdict" of such superbly qualified judges (what they agree on) is "the true standard of taste and beauty.”


A difficulty follows: But how can you find such judges?  There will be disputes about that.  Response: As in other disputes, do your best, bringing forth the best arguments you can muster, while you “acknowledge a true and decisive standard to exist somewhere,” namely, something that really exists as a matter of fact. (p. 88, par. 24-25)  Actually, it’s not as hard as it seems, because great art stays recognized long after fashions in philosophy and theology have changed (88, 26).  The great ones are so distinguished “by the soundness of their understanding and the superiority of their faculties” that they effectively teach others, who recognize them (88, 27).

            A significant qualification follows: there remain two sources of variation in judgments of taste, and there is no standard to decide between them: (1) the different inclinations (“humours”) of different men, some preferring love poetry to epics, some comedy to tragedy, and (2) “the particular manners and opinions of our age and country” (89, 28-30).  These differences do not affect the discernment of beauty, but they do affect the degree of approval given to particular works.  Of course we tend to prefer works of our own place and time, but we learn to stretch our appreciation to works of other places and times—except when we find our ideas of morality and decency violated by the standards implicit in, say, Homer; in such a case, we can not help seeing the work as in some degree inferior due to the base standards of morality and decency implicit in it (89-90, 31-32).

            It’s different with the differences of “speculative opinions” (i.e., in philosophy, theology, and religion), which change so rapidly, that we should simply learn not to be upset by such differences (91, 33-35).  However, when religious principles lead to bigotry or superstition, when they pervert moral sentiments or “intrude themselves into every sentiment” (91-92, 34-36), we cannot avoid having such differences affect our opinion of the beauty of the work.




Kant (Prussian [before Germany became a nation state], 1724-1804)


Notes from Douglas Burnham, An Introduction to Kant's Critique of Judgement

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000 [note the British spelling]

Rousseau posed a challenge for Kant: how to show that reason was not an artificial and distorting constraint on our good, natural spontaneity [compare Taoism] (4).

There are, of course, differences between the beauties of nature and the beauties in art, but “their commonality goes right to the heart of the experience” (41).

Our enjoyment in repulsive art is on account of some sort of positive value that we find in it (42f)

Beauty is not a distinctive property of an object, but sometimes Kant speaks as if it is.  “Beauty is not a natural property” (57-58).


Kant seeks to unify his philosophy, whose parts are indicated in four primary questions:

What can I know?

What ought I to do? 

What may I hope? 

What is man? 


Kant sees judgement as the unifying link between theoretical and practical philosophy, enabling “philosophy to be unified I its purpose by coordination towards the final or highest purpose of man” (37).


In Kant’s logic, “there are four basic formal characteristics that a judgement can have: quantity, quality, relation and modality” (45).


Critique = “an analysis which attempts to establish, for a mental ‘power’ or ‘faculty’, the range of applications of that ability which make sense and thus are legitimate.” 8


Aesthetics = (1) in the broad sense, regards the sensible aspect of our cognition of nature; (2) in the narrow sense, regards the sensible objects valued as art or as being beautiful (40-41).


Taste = “our ability to judge natural objects or works of art to be beautiful” (42)


Pleasure = “The feeling of an enhancement of life” (43).  Pleasure and pain are the only presentations that one cannot make into a concept (54).


A priori = a philosophical expression that means something is absolutely independent of any ‘ordinary’ event or thing, that is, independent of any event or thing which can be observed or studied as being either within my conscious mind, or in the world around me.” (17)


Transcendental argument = works by showing that if a given concept were not valid according to a principle, then a certain type of experience (which we obviously have) would not be possible) (23).  The “transcendental method . . . seeks to investigate [the faculties of the mind] by showing their role as a priori conditions of any experience” (39).


Judgement = “a mental act which in some way decides whether a thing is this or that.  But there seem to be different types of judgment.  A ‘determinate’ judgment is one that has a concept in advance and simply applies it to a thing.  And ‘indeterminate’ judgement is one that creates the concept in the same act as making the judgment.  A judgment of sensual interest works on the basis of m y entirely subjective tastes.  A teleological judgement sees the holism of [e.g.,] a living organism in terms of purposes and not in terms of the straightforward cause and effect relations of natural science.  Finally, an aesthetic judgement judges a thing ( such as an alpine meadow, or a novel) to be of aesthetic value.  The last two types function in peculiar ways: they neither have, nor create, a determining natural concept of the thing; nor are they entirely subjective in their validity.  Judgements with these characteristics (teleological or aesthetic) Kant calls ‘reflective’.  [They draw on judgement’s own inherent resources, not on concepts derived from outside, so are a reasonable place to seek the apriori legislating principle of judgment.] (30).


“An aesthetic judgment (or judgement of taste) means a judgement which ‘connects’ a feeling of pleasure to the mere experience of something, and accordingly calls it ‘beautiful’, or ‘sublime’.”  (44)


In our presentations of objects are


Our response can be focused on


Disinterested = a quality of aesthetic judgements meaning that they are free of interests pertaining to what is agreeable or to interests pertaining to ethical concerns.  In judgements that are “interested” we care about the existence of the object.


Universality (second moment) = Aesthetic judgements behave universally, that is, they involve an expectation or claim on the agreement of others ‘without a concept’ (#9).  This universality is distinguished both from the mere subjective evaluation of judgements such as ‘I like honey’, and from the strict descriptive objectivity of judgements such as ‘Honey contains sugar and is sweet’.  Judgements of reflective taste behave as if they were objective; also a universal, they are communicable” (49-50).


Purposiveness without purpose (third moment) = “Why do we feel pleasure in the beautiful at all?  Pleasure seems to be the result of some attainment of a purpose, but the beautiful has no purpose.  Rather, Kant says, it is the mere purposiveness of the beautiful for cognition in general that serves as if it were a purpose.” (Burnham, 72)

            Beauty is without regard to any external purpose whatsoever (e.g., a purpose beyond a thing which it may be intended to serve).  Beauty is either free or dependent (a function of something else’s function—the noble deed has a beauty to it that is dependent on the ethical quality of the deed).  Burnham gives a series of examples leading our intuition gradually to an example that enables us to grasp what purposiveness without purpose might be: (1) walking in the woods, we find a typewriter, and immediately observe the purpose behind the manufacture of this artifact; (2) walking further, we come upon a stick that has obviously been carved, but for exactly what purpose, we cannot determine.  (3) The third example is what Burnham offers to help us get the idea of purposiveness without a purpose: coming onto a beach, we find some lines of poetry in the sand; if we can eliminate the possibility that someone has written those lines, and are left with only the possibility that the random action of the waves has done this, then the “words” merely resemble linguistic communication.  What we initially took for poetry we can no longer accept as such, however much we may value it considered as if it had been consciously produced. 

Ideal = the full realization of a thing’s purpose—not observed in nature, but theoretically possible for a human being who fully acts in accord with the moral law.

Necessity (fourth moment) = the judgement cannot be otherwise, given the human capacity called “common sense”; the necessity is singular and exemplary [the judgement, strictly speaking applies only to single objects which exemplify beauty, not to classes of things].  [There is no concept which would give people a universal rule under which objects could be subsumed under “beauty” the way rabbits can be subsumed under the empirical concept of “rabbit.”] 

Common sense = a feeling for the beautiful shared by humans (an a priori but subjective ‘principle’ of taste—the principle or rule with which judgement legislates for our mental faculty of feeling); common sense is publicly communicated  (56).  Kant “also suggests that common sense in turn depends upon, or is identical with, the same faculties as ordinary cognition, that is as those features of human beings which make possible any experience whatsoever.” (60)



 Table 1 The Faculties of the Mind (p. 10)



Theoretical cognition of nature

    Legislative faculty: understanding, with laws of nature

Subjective association

Aesthetic feeling for nature & art

    Legislative faulty: judgement, with principle of purposiveness

Corporeal feeling

Pure desire in the exercise of freedom

    Legislative faculty: reason, with principle of morality, and of the highest purpose or Good

     Non-legislative faculty: sensibility, especially productive imagination

Corporeal desire


The parts of sensibility

1.  Sensation [Empfindung] Kant understands to be both passive and lower or dependent.  In sensation we are presented with colours, sounds, feelings of warmth, hardness and so on.

2.  Pure intuition [Anschauung] (passive, hier or independent), does not refer to some kind of “sixth sense’.  Rather, the faculty of intuition is Kant’s name for the source of our a priori presentations of the form of space and time.  Importantly, Kant argues that this form is quite different from the ‘content’ of sensation.

3.  Reproductive imagination [Einbindungskraft] (active, lower) is our ability to see things, h ear things, touch things, and so on, when they are no longer there.  Reproductive imagination also allows us to form associations between different things we have experienced at different times.  For example, the colour of this room resembles that of a room in which I once stayed in Paris.

4.  Productive (or sometimes ‘free’) imagination is both active and independent. . . .  It is not bound to previous sensations or intuitions, or at least not to the laws of association that govern the reproductive imagination.

            We can think about the world around us (theoretical cognition), we can have feelings, we can have and act upon desires.  These Kant calls ‘faculties’ or ‘powers’ of the mind. . . .  These achievements . . . are made on the basis of certain activities or sources of ‘presentations’ that Kant calls the ‘cognitive powers or faculties’.  There are three kinds of these linked to the above three achievements, respectively: understanding, judgement and reason.  A fourth cognitive faculty is sensibility which includes the imagination.  Each of the above is split into lower and higher parts.  “Lower’ means that the faculty is entirely a function of nature and subject to its laws, for example the laws of psychology.  “higher’ means that the faculty is independent of natural determination, thus functioning in some way ‘prior’ to natural laws.  The process of critique, then, requires the investigation of how one cognitive faculty (perhaps together with the others in a merely supporting role) achieves one of the faculties of the mind, and thus also what kind of validity and range of application the result has.”  (16)

The Sublime

Anything awesome, including the Great Pyramids in Egypt and the huge cathedrals of Europe, as well as a great storm on the ocean, can engender an experience of the sublime—“the feeling of, or associated with, the overwhelmingness of an object.”   “The distinction between the beautiful and the sublime had . . . been made, on similar if not identical grounds, in ancient philosophy.  The sublime occasioned by a natural object or scene has a “strange combination of familiarity and unfamiliarity” (88).  Kant neglects other types of aesthetic experience, tragic, comic, picturesque (89). 

            Two stages can be articulated in the experience of the sublime: the “unpleasant” aspect and then the particular pleasure of the sublime. 

            The mathematical and dynamical sublime.  The mathematical sublime is occasioned by the overwhelmingness associated with something that is extremely extensive in space or time, “outraging” our imagination “because we cannot ‘take it all in’ at once” (91).  There are two aesthetically interesting moments in coming up with, and trying to apply, a unit of measurement.  First, in coming up with a unit, we must take something we can (physically) experience.  Second, regarding objects that occasion the experience of the sublime, we could not begin to imagine that we could ever possibly encompass the object in question by repeated applications of our unit of measure.  Since we can, however, measure galaxies, we must bracket our intellectual-scientific [or go beyond?] take on things in order simply to experience (as “poets do”) how greatly, say, the night sky exceeds the magnitude, say, of my body—“that through which and that with which I sense, and also, equally importantly, that which senses; that is, the sensible aspect of me” (92).  In fact, as a sensible, embodied being, if I try to “construct an intuition of a whole object, this requires sense, memory, and imagination”; in the case of a cat, I cannot master the full detail of the thisness (particularity) of the cat (93).  The sublime is not merely the colossal.  The “absolutely large” object (that (i) overwhelms imagination, or  (ii) frustrates the attempt to grasp it as a whole and as a fully detailed particular, or (iii) is formless) “is presented only in feeling, initially, the feeling of displeasure at the breakdown of sensible cognition” (95).  It is as though a certain counter-purposiveness is at work (96).  In the dynamical sublime, it is the overwhelming power (not magnitude) of the object that occasions the experience of the sublime.  One could potentially be swept away by it, but fear is merely potential or not overriding. 

            In the second stage of the experience, the mathematical sublime arouses the rationality of totality—not exhibited in sensory cognition, the totality of all nature, the totality of the conditions or causes that finally produce what we observe, including the idea of the ground of that totality (God).  The dynamical sublime arouses the rational idea of freedom—transcending natural factors that might be thought to cause or determine one’s action to such an extent that one would effectively lose one’s freedom.  The mind can  “feel the sublimity, even above nature, that is proper to its [human] vocation.”  “The demand of reason for self-transcendence of will is thus related to the demand of reason to obey moral law.  Through it, we are shown to belong to a transcendent ‘community’ of supersensible beings, created in the very image of God” (100).  The conflict experienced at phase one now becomes welcomed as purposive on account of its driving the mind to such heights, that bring with them their own kind of pleasure.  It is easy to forget, especially, the insight of reason associated with the dynamic sublime, and cultural civilization (with “education, religion, philosophy, and so on”) is in fact necessary if humans are to experience it at all (100-101).

Transition between the notes on Burnham to the instructor's notes


The Critique of Judgment (instructor's notes)


Some knowledge is empirical, a posteriori (=after experience), e.g., this is caused by that.  Some knowledge is a priori (even before you try to check it out in experience): you know that events have causes.





Critique of Pure Reason

There are first given rules or principles or laws which then determine the particulars.  This event must have a cause.

Critique of Judgment

Judgment subsumes the particular under the universal: this (particular) is a cat (universal [a form in Plato’s terms]).  We don’t have rules to start with.  We start with particulars and seek the universal (as in Hume).

Critique of Practical Reason

This book treats of reason concerning action, especially morality.  This is the one area reason, our highest capacity, can succeed in establishing solid principles.

Faculty of cognitive, theoretical knowledge

Feeling of pleasure and pain; lower desires are pre-moral;

Faculty of desire

The higher desires are moral.

Knowledge is gained by applying the rules of the understanding to phenomena that exemplify, e.g., the principle of causation: every event has a cause

Reflective judgment cannot give knowledge about things; strictly speaking, it is judgment about our experience as occasioned by things.

Kant recognizes that there is an empirical knowledge part of ethics, but what reason establishes "apriori" is not knowledge of observable behavior, but "prior" to that.

Reason cannot succeed in achieving knowledge (because it tries to apply the categories of the understanding beyond any possible experience—to God, the soul, and the universe as a whole.

Reflective judgment claims no knowledge that purpose is manifest in, say, the design of a beautiful flower or an organism or ecosystem.  Nevertheless, we can hardly make sense of an organism’s mutually adapted parts and its capacities for growth, self-maintenance, and reproduction without thinking of it as being implicitly or divinely purposive.

Reason succeeds in legislating universal moral law (a golden rule upgrade):

Act only on grounds that you can will everyone to act on.

Treat all persons as ends, never merely as means.

Act as if your principles would be taken as legislating for an advanced civilization.


A purpose is a concept of an object that brings that object into existence.   We see something as purposive when—as far as our understanding can tell—it fits in an order of things that can only be the result of the acts of a mind with a purpose.  (97)


First Book

Analytic of the Beautiful

First Moment

Of the Judgment of Taste, According to Quality


#1.  The judgment of taste is aesthetical in the sense that it refers to the pleasure (or pain) in the subject—not to a quality in the object.

#2.  Aesthetic satisfaction is disinterested (this is the quality of the judgment) in the sense that it prescinds from (takes no account of) my appetites or practical interests.  “Disinterested” does not imply “impersonal” or “cool”; nor does it imply any distanced attitude when the person is involved in practical matters.

#3.  If I’m responding to something as pleasant, some interest of mine is being gratified; but to find something beautiful is different from that.  [But notice: the beautiful does please.]

#4.  If I appreciate something as good, whether good as a means to something else or good in itself, I have some interest in it.

#5.  The judgment of taste is contemplative, and is without interest in the existence of its object.  Satisfaction in the beautiful is free in the sense that it is neither caused by a pleasant sensation nor obliged by moral reason.


Second Moment

Of the Judgment of Taste, According to Quantity


#6.  To judge that something is beautiful is not merely to say that I happen to like it (because of some peculiar feature of myself); rather it is to imply that anyone and everyone (this is the quantity implied in the judgment) who beholds it would find it beautiful.

#7.  People are content to find different things pleasant.  We do sometimes speak of taste in matters of what is merely pleasant.  Aesthetic judgment pertains in the first instance to single objects (this flower, this painting), but without setting up a concept from which a universal criterion could be derived.  “There can be no rule according to which anyone is to be forced to recognize anything as beautiful.”  Of course one may generalize and say, “Roses are beautiful.”  To make a clearly aesthetic judgment, separate off everything belonging to the sensory enjoyment of the pleasant and the moral respect for the good and see what satisfaction is left.  “The beautiful is that which pleases universally without [requiring] a concept.” [Kant will elsewhere say that there is a concept, but it is not determinate (definite or specific in any way).]


Third Moment

Of the Judgment of Taste, According to the Relation of the

Purposes Which Are Brought into Consideration in Them


The aesthetic experience is enjoyable for its own sake—its purposiveness is fulfilled simply by the pleasure that we take in the free play of imagination and understanding.  It has no purpose outside itself (no cognitive aim in the realm of truth, no practical aim in the realm of goodness).  In this sense Kant can use the phrase “purposiveness without purpose.”

There is a second approach to interpreting the phrase, "purposiveness without purpose."  No definite purpose is cognized in the flower that gives rise to an experience of beauty.  The flower seems “preadapted to our judgment,” as if it were purposely designed to give us aesthetic satisfaction; but there is no objective purpose that reflective judgment can assert.  Nevertheless, the flower might possibly be said to have “purposiveness" in the highly qualified sense that we could say that the flower is in conformity with an aesthetic purpose if we could know that there was an artist, e.g., an Author of nature, whose purpose was to give us this particular kind of satisfaction--to arouse a pleasurable play in our powers of imagination and understanding.


Fourth Moment

Of the Judgment of Taste, According to Modality


            The judgment of beauty is necessary, since—if a person judges correctly—she judges on grounds that every person has, i.e., the capacities of imagination and understanding.


A colloquial approach to Kant's four qualities of the beautiful

Ya gotta love it” captures a lot of what Kant wants to say.  I like to take Kant as offering an analysis of language as much as anything.  If A says, “I like it,” and B says, “It’s not my cup of tea,” there’s no contradiction between them.  If A says, “It’s beautiful,” and B says, "It's just a sentimental appeal to emotion," there is a contradiction between them.

“Ya gotta love it”: “gotta” implies the necessity of the judgment.  It’s not just, “Try it, you might like it”; it’s try it, you’ll like it.” 

“Ya” (if said of an indefinitely large group) connotes universalityeveryone’s gotta love it.  That’s two out of Kant’s four defining predicates.

Now if this judgment is about what the speaker takes for beautiful, the speaker is implying that there’s some appeal here that’s not simply a matter of what happens to gratify our particular passions or our practical needs (moral and otherwise).  (Not that there’s anything wrong about our passions or practical needs—just that beautiful adds something not included in predicates that refer to those satisfactions.)  This is what Kant has in mind with his outdated word, “disinterested.”  Don’t get hung up on the word.  Get what he’s after.  Here is where we find the limit to the usefulness of the phrase, “Ya gotta love it,” to help a student get an intuition of what Kant is up to.  “Love” may very well connote a response to what gratifies the appetites or practical needs.  For this reason, I don’t want you to use this phrase, “Ya gotta love it” in your papers.  I simply use it as a ladder (pun intended).  Yes, there are problems with Kant’s claims, but there is also an important core of intuitive plausibility to the claims, and that’s what I’m trying to convey here.  First understand, then criticize.

Last (I’m obviously not following Kant’s sequence here), Kant gives voice to a kind of free play that beauty releases.  Don’t wrestle with the definitions of “imagination” and “understanding” so much that you fail to pick up intuitively what he’s getting at.  You are free from cognitive striving.  You are free from practical effort; therefore you're judgment is disinterested.  You can "simply" enjoy this beauty in your mind.  That’s the main thing.

            Kant centers his philosophy on his insight into, and conviction of, universal humanity: in and through all our differences, we have the same basic structure of mind: the capacities of sensation, imagination, understanding, judgment, and reason.  To map these out clearly and in their complexity, to recognize their limits, and to realize what they can and do accomplish, is the philosopher’s task.



Beautiful and sublime



Both please in themselves, involve a judgment of reflection, do not depend on sensation nor on a definite concept.  The concepts of the beautiful and the sublime are indefinite/ indeterminate/lacking in definition.  Both judgments are about particulars, yet claim validity for everyone.


The beautiful in nature is connected with the form of an object with definite boundaries.


The sublime is found in formless objects that suggest boundlessness.

The undefined concept of the beautiful is a concept of the understanding.


The not-strictly-defined concept of the sublime is a concept of reason or an idea of reason (beyond the limits of the understanding).  Ideas of reason include God, the soul, and the universe as a whole.

Enhances vitality, may be associated with charm (though the charming and the beautiful are different).


Attraction and repulsion are combined, and the feeling is more one of admiration or respect.

The object nicely fits our capacities of appreciation.


The object utterly exceeds our powers.

Even though no purpose is directly perceived or known by the understanding, a natural object that we experience as beautiful may hint at a divine artist and nature as a system expressing purpose.


Often associated with more chaotic and wild scenes.  Does not indicate anything purposive about nature, except perhaps that nature may drive us beyond itself to reason.

That in nature which gives rise to the experience of beauty is something external to ourselves.


That in nature which gives rise to the experience of the sublime derives its character from what surges within us.  Properly speaking, a state of mind is sublime, not an object of nature.




Two types of sublimity:

A. The infinite (“mathematically sublime”) suggested by some natural phenomena.

The sublime is what is absolutely great, great beyond all comparison.  This can be quantitative greatness, overwhelming, colossal size, mathematical sublimity.  The understanding measures quantities, but this the sublime surpasses the understanding.  When we find ourselves in the presence of something whose size we could never measure, our feeling of being thus overwhelmed arouses our sense of a higher faculty beyond the understanding (which deals with sensory objects).  The infinite is a concept of a sublime totality, but trying to think this concept is problematic (a progress without limit has come to completeness).  Therefore, rather than trying to think nature as an infinite totality, we shift gears and simply say that nature is sublime in those of its phenomena which, when seen, bring with them the idea of its infinity.

            B. “Nature, considered in an aesthetical judgment as might that has no dominion over us, is dynamically sublime.”  [In Greek, dynamis means power.]

Though not every thing that arouses fear is sublime, everything in nature that gives rise to the experience of the sublime in nature has overwhelming power so as to rouses some fear; but fear is transcended when the mind is not swamped by our being immediately physically carried off by the tornado, tsunami, hurricane, Niagara Falls, and we can feel the soul powers mobilize their sublime dignity that shall not be overwhelmed by the power of natural forces.  (Cf. in religion: a faithful believer does not fear even an omnipotent God whose power he has no occasion to resist.)  “Bold, overhanging, and as it were threatening rocks; clouds piling up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river, and such like—these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small in comparison with their might.  But the sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we willingly call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.”


           As a first approximation to the sublime, imagine someone saying, “Awesome!”  (I’m not going to insist on the technical point that Kant mentions and then sets aside, that sublimity is about the human response, not about the, e.g., colossal or dynamic-powerful natural phenomenon.)  The sublime is lofty in a special way.  It overwhelms our sense of what is great; it may threaten us, but it does so in such a way that rouses a sublime resistance within us: our dignity is higher than what the forces of nature can bring against us.  The human paradox is that we are a part of nature and we, in some measure, transcend nature. 

One variety of stimulus to the experience of the sublime—e.g., the starry sky above me—staggers the imagination, leads the mind toward the notion of infinity.

Another variety of the sublime manifests power, dynamism, that would overwhelms the human scale of resistance; though in a moment of sublimity we are in fact not picked up and carried off by the tornado, but able to feel the stirring of that within us which is, in its way, even greater than a very big wind.



Exercise: Read Bullough’s description in the long paragraph on the middle of p. 459.  Which Kantian classification would be more apt here—beautiful or sublime?  Why?


Note: to understand Lyotard’s identification with the sublime and his political critique of integrated, “beautiful” totality, it helps to know of the thought of his contemporary, the French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95).  Expressing convictions from his Jewish heritage in the concepts of philosophy, Levinas criticized the tendency of European philosophy as a quest for total comprehension, including total comprehension of the Other [the person], who, as infinite, has a [sublime] height of dignity that compels our utter respect and is always beyond our ability to comprehend.  The tendency to dominate the Other, who breaks through our self-satisfaction, culminated in National Socialism.  The face of the Other is not an object, nor a representation for thought.


Recommended: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-aesthetics/


Hans-Georg Gadamer, excerpt from Truth and Method, is excellently summarized in Stephen David Ross’s introductory paragraphs preceding the selection.  There is a social-historical-shared-human dimension essential to art that Kant’s abstract approach mostly misses, which enables understanding across cultural historical space when we become aware of one another’s presuppositions (it’s not possible to interpret anything without bringing some assumptions, “prejudices,” “bias,” some pre-comprehension, into play).  On the topic of genius, we’ll try reading a distinguished secondary source this time before reading Kant.

Main ideas: The purposiveness without purpose (Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck) that characterizes a natural beauty is this: the flower has no purpose or intention to please by setting our cognitive powers into play, but it, as it were, conforms to such a purpose (Zweckmässigkeit is translated purposiveness—or finality—but it really means being measured or trimmed to . . . it’s as if there were a purpose shaping it).  Teleological judgment cannot pretend to know what the first Critique concluded that it is impossible to know—that “nature” or, in another word, more to the point in this context, God has arranged nature as a purposive system whose sole end in itself is man as a rational being.  Since natural beauty indicates our status as ends, it is a symbol of morality; this is because moral reason, the capacity for rational self-governance, is what lifts us beyond the realm of mere nature, being determined by the chains of causes and effects. 

The function of Kant’s doctrine of genius in his philosophic system is to keep art within the realm of nature, since genius is a natural gift, whose “rule” can never be set forth by the understanding as a law or an algorithm for the production of beautiful works.


Finality=purposiveness (Greek, telos, = Latin, finis, end, goal).

Teleology=the doctrine explicating a purposive system.

Sensus communis=common sense

Transcendental=in this selection, it refers to Kant’s systematic, philosophic enterprise; he sought the conditions of the possibility of true scientific judgments (first Critique), the conditions of the possibility of an unconditional moral command (second Critique), and the conditions of the possibility of discerning reflective judgment (third Critique).  In his terminology, asking how something is possible is a “transcendental” inquiry.  The term is not to be confused with “transcendent,” as in the concept of a transcendent God beyond creation.

Idea=an idea of Reason; it’s beyond a concept of the understanding, which can be experienced as a phenomenal appearance in space and time.  Examples of Ideas are God, the freedom of the immortal soul, the cosmos as a whole, and history as an evolutionary process leading toward an advanced planetary civilization.

Spirit=Geist, mind or spirit (in German, French [esprit], and some other languages, there is just one term for these two concepts which are significantly differentiated.  Do not automatically assume any religious overtones; the term can also mean culture; it tends to have social connotations.



            The aesthetic judgment of taste can take examples from nature as well as from art.  What’s crucial is “the playful facility of one’s mental powers, the expansion of vitality which comes from the harmony between imagination and understanding, and  invites one to linger before the beautiful” (354).


The beautiful in nature

The beautiful in art

Better for illustrating the consonance of the thing represented with our cognitive faculty

More direct expression of the moral

Possess no significance of content; manifests the judgment of taste in its unintellectualised purity

Art=the beautiful representation of a thing.

A [great] work of art should not seem artificial, but natural; art must be able “to be looked at as nature,” i.e., please without betraying the constraint of rules.

Able to arouse an immediate moral interest, if a person has already developed his interest in the morally good; natural beauty points us to the ultimate goal of creation [not as something known; this is merely an Idea of reason], to our ‘moral destiny’

Art objects, unlike natural objects, exist only to address us in this way (rousing our moral interest).

Art aims to present aesthetic ideas (of reason) as well as to set the conceptual powers of the understanding and imagination in play.

In nature there are no ends [i.e., no final ends, or “ends in themselves”], therefore nature gives no standards in terms of which natural things can be judged in terms of their approximation to perfection; therefore Kant rejects perfection-aesthetics.  [For Plato there are eternal patterns; “time is the moving shadow of eternity.”]

Genius is the favorite of nature; through genius, nature gives art its rules.

Nature alone can perform the key role in Kant’s philosophical system of a bridge between nature and freedom.  The first Critique banished the ambition of classical teleological cosmology; judgment finds room for teleology, and for the Idea of free agency—the Creator and the rational, moral creature.




OK, Kant, now prove it!

[I.  The warm up.]

#31.  How in the world can it be possible for a judgment of taste to require the necessary accord of everyone else?  A sufficient answer will come from comparing the structure of aesthetic judgments (“Yosemite Valley is beautiful” with the structure of objective judgments (“Yosemite Valley is in California”).

#32.  The judgment of taste is like objective judgments in demanding the assent of everyone.  And we must judge for ourselves, not merely imitate others’ judgments, though we follow and build on others’ achievements.  There is the young poet who falsely attributes beauty to his own poem, in spite of its rejection by others.  The classics do indeed point the way, giving examples to educate taste, which does not mean that it reduces later artists (in the broad sense) to the status of mere imitators, though it does imply that if we neglect to school ourselves in the great achievements of the past, we will revert to crudity and have to begin all over again.  “Art stands still at a certain point; a boundary is set to it beyond which it cannot go, which presumably has been reached long ago and cannot be extended further” (#47, 129).

#33.  The judgment of taste, like subjective judgments, cannot be proven.  Someone’s taste cannot be compelled by any consensus of authorities or any reasoning from principles or rules.  The judgment of taste is singular: “Niagara Falls is beautiful,” not the universal (“logical”) judgment, “All waterfalls are beautiful.”

#34.  Since I must immediately feel something as beautiful, not follow a line of reasoning to discover it to be so, no objective principle of taste is possible, though critics can contribute many interesting things—see the rich, second paragraph!  To find something beautiful, “I must immediately feel pleasure in the representation of the object”; nevertheless, critics may help “correct and extend” taste, though not by reducing art to a matter of rules (124.2).

#35.  Free, playful perception (“imagination”) alongside thinking with concepts (connected as they logically are, “lawfully” are)—in general—is what is essentially involved in (the “principle” of) taste.  The essential aesthetic pleasure is precisely the pleasure we feel in the play of these two “powers” or “faculties.”  The feeling of the free play of imagination and understanding is the way we grasp the beautiful.

#36.  The effort to demonstrate the possibility or legitimacy of the aesthetic judgment as set forth here is part of a larger project of showing how synthetic a priori judgments are possible.  A priori judgments are ones whose truth does not depend on anything empirical (e.g., every event has a cause).  Synthetic judgments are ones whose predicate (in this case, “beautiful”) is not already implied in its components (the perception of the flower, the particular concept(s) (concepts, say, of vitality, gracefulness, evanescence, lush extravagance) that may happen to be in play in a particular aesthetic experience).

#37.  The judgment of the beautiful is about individual things, not classes of things, since aesthetic pleasure does not come from a concept.   

[II.  The proof]

#38.  If the (pure case of the) aesthetical enjoyment of beauty judges the object not in terms of its sensuous qualities but only in terms of its form, which sets into play faculties which everyone has, then the judgment of taste can require universal assent—which is what we needed to show.

Remark.  The fact that we may readily err in judging something beautiful does not compromise our result, any more than making a mistake in logic brings logical principles into question.

#46.  Beautiful art is the product of genius.  Definition: “Genius is the innate mental disposition through which nature gives the rule to art.”  It is “a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given”; and therefore since the genius cannot learn to create beautiful art by learning and following rules, the work must be marked, first and foremost, by originality.  (2) Its products must be models, i.e., they do not merely imitate but give examples to others.  (3) The genius produces not merely at will or by any method that he could teach to others so they could make something similar; “he does not know himself how he has come by his ideas.”

#47.  “Art stands still at a certain point; a boundary is set to it beyond which it cannot go, which presumably has been reached long ago and cannot be extended further.” [The idea of the end of art is a side-comment, picked up by Hegel and much discussed in the 20th century].  There is no production of beautiful art by rule, but “the rule must be abstracted from the fact” [cf. Hume].  In any beautiful art, however, there is some “mechanical element that can be comprehended by rules and followed accordingly,” something that can be taught in a school.  Artistic creation must be purposive.  “Shallow heads believe that they cannot better show themselves to be full-blown geniuses than by throwing off the constraint of all rules; they believe, in effect, that one could make a braver show on the back of a wild horse than on the back of a trained animal.  Genius can only furnish rich material for products of beautiful art; its execution and its form require talent cultivated in the schools . . . . (130).

#48.  Definition: “Artificial beauty is a beautiful representation of a thing.”  One can represent as beautiful even terrible things [cf. Aristotle], so long as they are not simply disgusting.  Once the act of genius has launched the beautiful representation, the work of taste takes over to adjust the form suitably.  “By taste the artist estimates this work after he has exercised and corrected it by manifold examples from art or nature, and after many, often toilsome, attempts to content himself he finds that form which satisfies him.  Hence this form it not, as it were, a thing of inspiration or the result of a free swing of the mental powers, but of a slow and even painful process of improvement, by which he seeks to render it adequate to his thought, without detriment to the freedom of the play of his powers.”  Judging a thing according to the perfection of its fulfillment of its maker’s purpose in bringing it into existence is not a judgment of aesthetic taste, but we do use it, e.g., in valuing the effective artistry of the Creator.  We like all sorts of products (silverware, books, sermons) to be artistic, without any show of artistic effort.  Art may show genius without taste or taste without genius.

#49.  Genius has spirit [Geist], the animating principle of the mind.  All kinds of activities may have various excellences, and yet lack spirit, which alone gives the vigor, acceleration, drive, momentum.  But just what is spirit (Geist)?

            Definitions: Spirit is the faculty of presenting aesthetical ideas.  An aesthetical idea is a “representation of the imagination which occasions much thought, without however any definite thought, i.e., any concept, being capable of being adequate to it; it consequently cannot be completely compassed and made intelligible by language.”  This is “a counterpart to a rational idea, a concept to which no intuition or representation of the imagination can be adequate” [e.g., God, the free and immortal soul, the idea of history with its destiny in an advanced civilization, and the cosmos].  Examples of poetic imagination are representations of heaven and hell, angels, and the like. 

            Imagination=Einbildungskraft, the power of forming an image [whether by perceptually synthesizing the data given in sensation or by in the way that we normally would call “imagination”—as a productive faculty]

#56.  There are disputes about taste, but no cognitive, conceptual grounds [in the understanding] for such.  How can this be?

#57.  The fact that judgments taste can claim universal validity points to their basis in a different kind of concept: a concept of a “supersensible substrate of humanity”—it transcends anything we can grasp by the senses (to which we may apply our empirical concepts [green, parrot] and our categories [thing (“substance”), event]).  This is a concept that we can’t use to gain the knowledge that the understanding is good at seeking (Newton’s physics and ordinary understanding of things and causes); it’s a concept of something we share as humans that forms the basis of judgments of taste.

#58.  We use symbols to illustrate certain concepts (e.g., God is our father or “a monarchical state is represented by a living body if it is governed by national laws, and by a mere machine . . . if governed by a [despot]”).  “The beautiful is the symbol of the morally good.”  In making a judgment of taste, we call for universal agreement, thus appealing beyond what happens to attract or charm someone on, appealing on a sensuous level; the beautiful addresses something higher in us—and that’s why it’s a symbol of the moral, and why we use terms for character qualities to express what we find beautiful.





Clive Bell


            Here are a few links to give context to the brief selection from Bell.  I have excerpted a couple of passages that illumine Bell's key concept and its distinction from beauty.



http://cepa.newschool.edu/~quigleyt/vcs/bell-sum.html  a critique


            "When I speak of significant form, I mean a combination of lines and colours (counting white and black as colours) that moves me aesthetically. 

            "By "significant form" I mean arrangements and combinations that move us in a particular way, . . . .

            "To appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing but a sense of form and colour and a knowledge of three-dimensional space.

            "#9. Some people may be surprised at my not having called this "beauty." Of course, to those who define beauty as "combinations of lines and colours that provoke aesthetic emotion," I willingly conceded the right of substituting their word for mine. But most of us, however strict we may be, are apt to apply the epithet "beautiful" to objects that do not provoke that peculiar emotion produced by works of art. Everyone, I suspect, has called a butterfly or a flower beautiful. Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture/ surely, it is not what I call an aesthetic emotion that most of us feel, generally, for natural beauty. I shall suggest, later, that some people may, occasionally, see in nature what we see in art, and feel for her an aesthetic emotion; but I am satisfied that, as a rule, most people feel a very different kind of emotion for birds and flowers and the wings of butterflies from that which they feel for pictures, pots, temples and statues. Why these beautiful things do not move us as works of art move us is another, and not an aesthetic, question."


        The excerpt from Bell's book, Art (which is in the public domain), which is available in the last of the links above, discloses the experience/conviction that art and religion are two roads by which we escape from circumstance to ecstacy.  Between aesthetic experience and religious rapture there is a family alliance.  Are and religion are means to similar states of mind.  It is the mark of great art that its appeal is universal and eternal.  "'Significant form' was form behind which we catch a sense of ultimate reality."


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)


Principium individuationis: the principle of individuation (so that we are individuals, not merely merged with our surroundings, natural and social). 

Maya, illusion (a Hindu concept of the transient and ultimately unreal character of the created multiplicity in which we seem to find ourselves).



Apollonian, ideal poise, order, and reason: “higher truth” as given in dreams (beautiful illusion)

(The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, 1872)

Dionysian unification with nature.  Terror and blissful ecstasy, wild, potent.

“Art impulses of nature.”

Tragedy reconciles Apollo and Dionysus.

Art, not morality, is the truly metaphysical activity of man.

The existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon.

Dionysian unification of humankind in joy:  Beethoven’s 9th Symphony [based on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”]

The vital, strong ones exert themselves against their deepest opponents: the challenges to life.  (Attempt at Self-Criticism, 1886)

Dionysian craving for beauty.


What, seen in the perspective of life, is the significance of morality?

Morality is demoted to the realm of appearance (take that, Kant!).  Pessimism “beyond good and evil.”


Science as a symptom of evasion of truth.

Socrates, cheerfulness (rather than deep pessimism) and theoretical philosophy as symptom of a decline.

Contemporary German music as romantic “poison for the nerves,” “doubly dangerous for a people who love drink and who honor lack of clarity as a virtue”: a  narcotic that both intoxi- cates and spreads a fog.

“The German spirit, which not long before had still had the will to dominate Europe and the strength to lead Europe” caves in to “a leveling mediocrity, democracy, and “modern ideas.”


As laughers, you may some day dispatch all metaphysical comforts to the devil—metaphysics in front.

Anti-moral, anti-Christian.  Life is something essentially amoral.





Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”


            We can observe that, in an obvious sense, the artist is the origin of the work; but we can also say that the work is the origin of the artist as such (without the work the artist would not be an artist).  What underlies this mutual originating?

 Art is the origin of both artist and work.  This is what is to be understood.  What can this mean?  What is art?  Sometimes the term seems empty.  If we define art by showing examples, we presuppose that we already know something of art in order to gather our collection in the first place.  There is a circle here that is unavoidable.  We must enter into the circle.

            What is art?  Have a look.  There is a thingly character, which is an enduringly profound aspect of the work: “the architectural work is in stone, the carving is in wood, the painting in color, the linguistic work in speech, the musical composition in sound” (256).  It is common to think of the work in its thingly character as a base for the symbolic function of the work, in virtue of which it points beyond itself.  But have we understood the concept of a thing adequately?


            Thing and Work.  [Ten pages from the article are omitted in our text.  These pages chronicle the attempts of the history of metaphysics to define the thing, e.g., as substance, with matter and form.]  In the history of Western metaphysics, the previously dominant conception of the thing was based upon a certain interpretation of equipment, e.g., table (something we can use, something “ready to hand.”).  To get beyond the history of Western metaphysics, we need another ontological interpretation of “the equipmental being of equipment.”  We’ll take this interpretation from Van Gogh’s painting of a woman’s shoes.  The world of the woman comes forth in this work (257), the ways of her life upon the earth.  “The artwork let us know what shoes are in truth”; “in the work of art the truth of an entity has set itself into work” (259). 

            This thought departs from the aesthetics of beauty and seems to revert to a theory of “imitation,” but a Greek temple imitates nothing; nevertheless, “truth is set to work in such a work, if it is a work” (259); e.g., “Roman Fountain” (260).    

            To begin an inquiry into art by starting with what seems most obvious—the thingly character of the work (presupposing traditional concepts of the thing) is an approach that runs aground.  Instead we need to approach the concept of thing by beginning with the concept of the work and how truth happens in the work.


The Work and Truth

            The origin of the art work is art. 

            It would seem as though, to see the work, we must see it in isolation from everything else, for example, as in great art, where the artist does not obtrude, does not manifest in his or her idiosyncrasies, but disappears in the work.  But works cannot be themselves when ripped out of their world context, and placed in foreign museums; nor can they be themselves when the world they inaugurated has passed away (262).

            Consider, for example, a Greek temple, which once focused the world of the people and which, by its contrasts, brings forth the earth as such, as nature (physis).  A people’s relation to divinities, to the holy, and the drama of the great decisions of a historical people are focused in the temple.  The work sets up a world.

            The work is not like a tool in which material remains in the background and is used up; in the work the rock and metals and colors and tones and word appear as what they are (unlike the way they are made to appear through science, which is interested in technical objectifying and in mastery in which everything becomes a resource for the purposes of human will). 

Between world and earth, between the holy and the unholy, between opponents, there is a striving.  Understand the striving deeply.  The self-assertion of nature in the work is “never a rigid insistence upon some contingent state, but surrender to the concealed originality of the sources of one’s own being” (267-68).

To see how truth happens in the work we need a deeper concept of truth.  It refers to what is essential, but essence is not understood in terms of “Platonic” forms.  Nor is truth merely a matter of correctness, of conforming to the way things are; this derivative conception of truth presupposes the deeper conception: that things are unconcealed, that they appear as what they are (rather than in terms of how we can manipulate them to serve some manufacturing purpose, e.g., referring to a forest in terms of board-feet). 

Beings stand forth, appear as phenomena, in the lighted clearing which is not itself a being, but “like the Nothing which we scarcely know” (270).  Disclosure, unconcealment, is never total, since there is always a measure of concealment, sometimes in the form of refusal to manifest, sometimes in the form of dissembling (a person may manifest as closed, or may play a fake role).  There is always more to the being of beings than what comes to truth as a-leth-ia: un-hidden-ness.  Art is one of the few essential ways in which truth happens.  Van Gogh’s shoes enabled the world of the woman to come to light; the Greek temple enables the world of that historical people to come to light.  The poem, “The Roman Fountain” lets beings as a whole come to light.  “This shining, joined in the work, is the beautiful.  Beauty is one way in which truth occurs as unconcealedness” (272). 

The question, the inquiry, advances now, asking about the creation of the work: “How does the impulse toward such a thing as a work lie in the nature of truth?  Of what nature is truth, that it can be set into work, or even under certain conditions must be set into work, in order to be as truth?”  In other words, what is it about truth that impels the creation of art works?  And why does truth need art to be itself?

Definitions: “the world is the clearing of the paths of the essential guiding directions with which all decision complies” 271.

“Earth is that whence the arising brings back and shelters everything that arises without violation.  In the things that arise, earth is present as the sheltering agent” (263).


Truth and Art

            Art works are created, not, however, simply through craftsmanship by a particular artist, but as the knowing bringing forth of beings into unconcealedment.  Art is something that Being lets happen; it is not simply an affair of one of the many beings (275).

            Truth “does not exist in itself beforehand, somewhere among the stars, only later to descend elsewhere among beings” (275).

            Truth happens in art, in the founding of a political state, in “the nearness of that which is not simply a being, but the being that is most of all”; in “the essential sacrifice”; in “the thinker’s questioning” (275).

            “Truth is never gathered from objects that are present and ordinary” (278).

            If we have a deep enough understanding of language, we can say that all art is essentially poetry, bringing something that is into the Open.  [Contrast the all-too-common way of speaking that merely passes along conventional impressions of things (partisan, e.g., politically dismissive speech or gossip or a taken-for-granted, in-group consensus about what things are—with no regard for letting those things appear for who or what they are).

            “A work is in actual effect as a work only when we remove ourselves from our commonplace routine and move into what is disclosed by the work, so as to bring our own nature itself to take a stand in the truth of what is” (280).


Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

            Reading the writing of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), we encounter what many call postmodernism or deconstruction.  What is it about “modern” thought and culture that post-modernism tries to surpass?  A host of [allegedly] stable, fixed, static, blind, oppressive, authoritarian, even Fascist, conventions subtly woven into our very ways of thinking and experiencing.  One example of thought forms that need revolutionary work are oppositions such as reason/emotion, mind/body, spirit/nature, man/woman; and center/periphery, inner/outer, subject/object.  Such oppositions, developed in the history of the West, mask continuities and interrelationships; and the oppositions function in power relationships as destructive and hierarchal (reason over emotion, mind over the body, etc.).  To subvert these hierarchies, playful inversion is a technique.  Another technique is to destabilize the meanings of key words, by associating these words with other words derived from etymologies or Freudian associations.  How does deconstruction operate?  One of the primary techniques is to show, often by commenting on a text of some sort, that the attempted unity, integrity, authority of the text subverts itself.  For example, rightly viewed, a text is to such an extent a weave of other texts that the very idea of the author as the source of the text is brought into question.

The Truth in Painting (trans. 1987)


[“frame with a removable back” or “master skeleton key”]


1.  Someone who says—outside of any frame (context), “I am interested in the idiom in painting,” communicates in fact so ambiguously that the project of listing alternate interpretations leads to the recognition that that very project exceeds what can be unmanaged (402).  JD is launching the inquiry by noting how an ambiguous phrase, without any context, launches an endless sequence of possible interpretations that never comes to any definite end.  He already has us puzzling over language and painting—outside of any standard way of addressing these topics.


2.  He then works on a second ambiguous statement that forces us to think in unaccustomed ways about language and painting.  Cézanne, with a stroke (trait) of his pen, in a letter to Emile Bernard, said, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.”  In terms of speech act theory, he made a promise, a “performative” speech act [an act that does something—the classic example: “I pronounce you husband and wife”], not an assertion of a matter of fact (if we can assume a sharp distinction between these categories).  Can we make sense of such a promise in the realm of painting?

            There are four interpretations of the phrase “the truth in painting.”


(1) the thing itself (truth as unhiddenness, disclosure, presentation; unveiled with no disguise whatever).

(2) an adequate, accurate representation of the thing itself—Heidegger’s secondary sense of truth.  These two concepts of truth enable one to generate four possibilities: a presentation of a representation (see, look at this photograph, here); a presentation of a presentation (“Behold, the man!”); a representation of the presentation (a painting of the situation in which the presentation just mentioned occurred); and representation of the representation (a slide of the painting).

(3) the truth in the sense proper to a picture (whatever that may be—a play of possibilities opens up here), as opposed to truth in the sense proper to an essay, for example.

(4) the truth about painting.


Given the complex abyss of possibilities here, consider that “what is at stake in painting is truth” and that truth is an unfathomable abyss; nevertheless, we continue to be able to chart definite lines of possibility; we don’t just lapse into mere vagueness (“the indeterminate”).

            Finally the question of the passe-partout (the frame) is posed: what does a passe-partout do?  What does it cause to be done or shown?


3.  To what, in painting, does Cézanne’s promise commit him?  Perhaps to a doing (performative) that will say nothing, and which will thus be without meaning or truth.  Did Cézanne really promise “to say in painting the truth in painting?”  What kind of game is it, to tease out implications like this?  What am I up to?  What have I promised to do or tell?  This book shows links between The truth about language


4.  Here are four comments “around” painting (similar to a frame).


(1) How does considering the para-work (parergon, e.g., the frame or the signature) disturb (or interrupt) the great traditions and questions of aesthetics?

(2) One can focus on issues relevant to the link between sounds and letters.

(3) How does a signature occur?  Either as a proper name or through the series: production, reproduction, induction, reduction, etc.

(4) What about the Van Gogh painting?  The woman?  The shoelaces?  The shoes?   Whose shoes?


Discourses set up a distinction between what belongs to the work and what is outside of the work.  But there is something between every pair in opposition (inside/outside, above/below, external/internal edge-line, framer/framed, figure/ground, form/content, signifier/signified).  The stroke([/) (trait, gesture) establishes a separation or opposition [every opposition depends on a usually ignored mediating third].  But this perverse and necessary game we must be lucid: the passe-partout does not unlock every opposition, does not provide a new master-key to aesthetics.

            The painting only seems independent of the frame.  Its uncanny unities and multiplicities continue to be noted.    



(that which is para-the work [think of a paralegal employee])


The first paragraph is particularly important.  It makes, among others, two points.

1.  The first point is a general one from Heidegger.  The way we pose a question necessarily contains assumptions that prefigure the answer.  What is art (or the origin of art)?  The question assumes that there is something called “art,” that it is a unity (the question is not about a plural, a multiplicity, though obviously there is a multiplicity of artists, works etc., but we’re asking about the core of it, the inner, that which is constant in all the variations).  The question assumes that there is an answer, that art, in some sense, has an essence.

            2.  By asking about the meaning of art, namely (in French) about what art “wants to say” we are, in a certain way, bringing all arts into realm where language is privileged (thus to a hierarchy of the arts).

            There follows a reflection on Kant’s not-clear-enough remarks on the parergon: they do not provide a criterion which clearly enables us to determine what a parergon is in complex or marginal cases.  Sculptures include draping—clothing—but this is said to be not essential (based on an unclarified intuition about what is intrinsic or extrinsic).  So, too, the columns at the front or side of a temple (at the limit—on the Acropolis in Athens: columns which are sculpted draped women).  What about the frame around a painting?  Kant finds that it compromises the beauty of a functional frame if it draws attention to a painting not simply by its form, but by, say, its charming golden color. 

            Finally, JD puzzles over K’s remarks about the size required for objects to illustrate various concepts related to the sublime. 

·       The awesomely huge (ungeheuer);

·       The “prodigious” neither arouses fear nor attraction, but totally subverts the concept of what it is supposed to be;

·       The colossal is “almost too big for presentation” (??): almost more than we can apprehend (auffassen) (not to be confused with comprehend): imagination (which both apprehends and comprehends) can apprehend any number of units—to infinity, but aesthetic comprehension quickly reaches its limits and thus establishes a measure.  (Imagination is between sensibility and understanding.) 

What has this to do with the sublime?  Why should something great, rather than something small, be preferred to represent the sublime?

The fundamental human measure is the body.  Thus the right “place” for the experience of the sublime is a body which is of great size, but not beyond what aesthetic comprehension encompass.




Meyer Shapiro criticized Heidegger for falsely assuming (projecting his own bias) that the shoes in Van Gogh’s painting were those of a peasant, whereas in fact Van Gogh was at that time living in the city.  JD takes MS to task for projecting his bias, drawing such confident implications from his factual knowledge, indifferent to Heidegger’s thought, which brings MS’s implicit concept of truth into question.  Both Heidegger and Shapiro, notes JD, assume that the shoes are a pair (excluding the improbable), concealing a conscious or unconscious wager.


Letter to Peter Eisenman

[Stephen David Ross: “asks some of the most enigmatic and deepest questions that may be asked about any art’]

This letter breaks off the collaboration between Jacques Derrida and PE. 

JD is sending a tape-recording of his letter, and in the opening paragraph he carefully and characteristically gives expression to the nuances of the communicative situation.

·       One of the themes of contemporary French philosophy is the theme of presence and absence; but PE is speaking of this theme so as to flirt with spiritual connotations.

·       [Since some of PE’s architecture apparently has struck JD as appealing to the sense of the celebratory or awesome or sacred,] JD asks PE about God and about the difference between his architecture and buildings he would design for a temple or synagogue.

·       JD criticizes PE’s interpretation of chora [the concept from Plato’s Timaeus of cosmic space/womb where the creator attempts to replicate, in space and time, approximations to the eternal patterns of heaven); PE’s interpretation remains too theologized and ontologized (carrying traces of religious and metaphysical meaning)].

·       JD: what relations must architecture carry “with the voice, the capacity of voice, but also therefore with telephonic machines of all sorts that structure and transform our experience of space”?]

·       JD: what is to be said about glass, its optical or tactile qualities, its erotic/pleasure/seductive aspects, its material, technical, economic, and social aspects, its way of perhaps erasing the border of public and private (cf. love or the police), its resemblance to similar, new materials?  JD draws on Experience and Poverty (1933) by German aesthetician Walter Benjamin for the way hard, smooth, cold, concise glass strips things of aura, possession, secrecy, so that we can speak of a “culture of glass.”  The poor, the homeless, cannot be captured in demographic or sociologic classifications.    These poor are accustomed to arbitrary constructs, they are fed up with “culture” and humanism.  What relation, PE, does your architecture bear to those people?

·       In what ways is architecture, as the completion of a vision, implicitly destroyed already, already a ruin?  “In the past, great architectural inventions constituted their essential destructability, even their fragility, as a resistance to destruction or as a monumentalization of the ruin itself.”  [Think of the flying buttresses in cathedrals to keep the things from falling down (resistance to destruction).  Would an Arc de Triomphe, built to celebrate the conquests of Napoleon, illustrate what JD would call a monumentalization of destruction?]

·       Hear the echos of Jewish fragility, ashes, absence, invisibility, ruin.  Consider the Berlin Jewish Museum being designed by an architect, Libeskind, who wrote, “The past fatality of the German Jewish cultural relation to Berlin is enacted now in the realm of the invisible.  It is this invisibility which I have tried to bring to visibility.” (436)

·        My earlier question about God and Man was about the Sky and the Earth.  [The later Heidegger speaks repeatedly of “the four-fold”: mortals and divinities, earth and sky.]  How have rockets and astronomy changed things?  If building does not need to stand up in a way akin to the vertical stance of man, “what would be an architecture that, without holding, without standing upright, vertically, would not fall again into ruin?”  [See http://prelectur.standford.edu/lecturers/eisenman/ for an introduction to Eisenman’s work and thought plus a most intriguing 1998 photograph of a “model of Church for the Year 2000”—which looks exactly like a direct answer to JD’s question just quoted!]



John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)


            The live creature.  “The roots of every experience are found in the interaction of a live creature with its environment” 218.0).  The work of art must be understood in connection with “the human conditions under which it was brought into being and . . . the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.  [The perceiver must, in some measure, bring to mind the process of making, and the maker must work with the perceiver’s perspective in mind.]  Is there a connection between aesthetics and the philosophy of living?  “A primary task . . . imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of the fine arts . . . is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience . . . .” (204.2)

            Having an experience.  In the hectic quality of daily life, we often have experiences tumbling in on one another, and an experience with a quality of unity to it that runs through to its completion stands out—this is a necessary condition for aesthetic experience (study the description of the unity of an experience on 206.1-2 [indented paragraphs one and two]).  “This unity is neither emotional, practical, nor intellectual” [cf. beauty, goodness, truth] since these qualities are so blended in the experience [take that, Kant] that only after the experience could we discern, say, which of these qualities may have predominated.  Indeed, this is true of all experience [and it’s the mission of art to teach us the character of experience in general]; even though the experiences of the scientist and philosopher are intellectual “in final import,” “in their actual occurrence they were emotional as well; they were purposive and volitional.  No thinker can ply his occupation save as he is lured and rewarded by total integral experiences that are intrinsically worth while.  Without them he would never know what it is really to think and would be completely at a loss in distinguishing real thought from the spurious article.” (206.3).

            There are two sides to art that cannot be separated, “doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy” (208.1): the producer’s doing or making, and the consumer’s appreciating, perceiving, and enjoying.  “Craftsmanship to be artistic in the final sense must be “loving”; it must care deeply for the subject matter upon which skill is exercised” (207.4).  The artist takes the perspective of the perceiver and fashions the work with an eye for the way it will be perceived.  [Does this principle, if accepted and transferred to the art of living, promote narcissism?]

            The expressive object.  Art does not have meaning the way a sign pointing the direction to Cleveland has meaning, but neither is it utterly meaningless.  Art is representative in the sense that “the work of art tells something to those who enjoy it about the nature of their own experience of the world: . . . it present the world in a new experience which they undergo” (209.0).  Scientific statements are meaningful by stating meanings, leading the reader to experiences beyond the statement; art expresses meanings by already constituting an experience in itself. 

 “Is ‘beauty’ another name for form descending from without, as a transcendent essence, upon material, or is it a name for the esthetic quality that appears whenever material is formed in a way that renders it adequately expressive?” (211.3)—a rhetorical question, taking a pot-shot at a distorted Plato, whose forms are not spatially remote from any object. 

Substance and form.  “All language, whatever its medium, involves what is said and how it is said, or substance and form” (211.3). [If how we speak or act is at least as important as what we say or do, does artistic living concern itself with the how?]   Substance and form cannot be separated.  Why?  There can be self-expression only because the self is not isolated from its doings; its expressions are not external to it (212.1).  “The work itself is matter formed into esthetic substance” (213.2).

            The work of art must be derived from the materials of the common world; to draw on a purely private source would be “the state of a mad-house” (212.2).  Aesthetic experience creates “an experience of which the intrinsic subject matter, the substance, is new”; “a new poem is created by every one who reads poetically” (212.3).  “The” meaning of a work of art cannot be fixed; even the artist “would find different meanings in it at different days and hours and in different stages of his own development” (213.0).  The universality of a work of art is its ability to “continuously inspire new personal realizations in experience” (213.0); the perceivers interacting with the work should have “more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own” (213.1).  To “have form” “marks a way if envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experience matter so that it most readily and effectively becomes material for the construction of adequate experience on the part of those less gifted than the original creator. 

            “The undefined pervasive quality of an experience is that which binds together all the defined elements, the objects of which we are focally aware, making them a whole” (213.3)  “The sense of an extensive and underlying whole is the context of every experience and it is the essence of sanity” (214.0).  “A work of art elicits and accentuates this quality of being a whole and of belonging to the larger, all-inclusive, whole which is the universe in which we live.  This fact . . . explains also the religious feeling that accompanies intense esthetic perception.  We are, as it were, introduced into a world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world which we live in our ordinary experiences.  We are carried out beyond ourselves to find ourselves.  I can see no psychological ground for such properties of an experience save that, somehow, the work of art operates to deepen and to raise to great clarity that sense of an enveloping undefined whole that accompanies every normal experience. This whole is then felt as an expansion of ourselves. . . .  Where egotism is not made the measure of reality and value, we are citizens of this vast world beyond ourselves, and any intense realization of its presence with and in us brings a peculiarly satisfying sense of unity in itself and with ourselves.”(214.1)

            The Common Substance of the Arts.   “The needs of daily life have given superior practical importance to one mode of communication, that of speech” (211.1); nevertheless, each of the arts that do not use speech has its own special communicative gift, its own language, that cannot be reduced to speech.  Whatever medium is selected becomes the carrier of what address all the sense organs; thus color in painting, for example, attains a special purity, intensity, and focus, for it carries “the qualitative presence of the whole” (214.2-215.2).  The media of the arts are inherent in the work, not mere external means, just a way to get a job done.  [Cf. for Aristotle techne is simply a means to a product beyond the production process, whereas in praxis the value in the activity is inherent.]  “When the Greeks identified the good and beautiful in actions, they revealed, in their feeling of grace and proportion in right conduct, a perception of fusion of means and ends” (216.3).  And “spiritual” or ideal values become unattractive when exalted in such a way as to lose all connection with the means of approaching them.  Those who are intimately involved in science find “a fulfilling and consummatory quality” in scientific inquiry, as business persons find an aesthetic quality in the game of business (217.0).  Is beauty “a kind of ethereal essence which, in accommodation to flesh, is compelled to use external sensuous material as a vehicle”?  Then if the soul were not “imprisoned in the body, pictures would exist without colors, music without sounds, and literature without words” (217.1—another critique of Plato and maybe of the notion of celestial arts). 

            The Challenge to Philosophy.  Imagination is the “gateway” through which meanings and values derived from absent prior experiences “can find their way into a present interaction” (218.0).  The linking of past and present reconstructs the past and adjusts past and present into a certain fit, except in cases of mere mechanical repetition.  When mind, “the body of organized meanings,” is unable to interpret something, it may enjoy entertaining ideas that float without anchor in the real (218.2).  “In every work of art, however, these meanings are actually embodied in a material which thereby becomes the medium for their expression”—this is the defining character of the aesthetic (218.3).  “The imaginative quality dominates, because meanings and values that are wider and deeper than the particular here and now . . . are [expressed].”  “The work of art is . . . a challenge [to the perceiver] to perform a like act of evocation and organization” 219.1).  Aesthetic experience is “freed from the forces that impede and confuse its development as experience; free, that is, from factors that subordinate an experience as it is directly had to something beyond itself” (219.2).  The philosopher’s aesthetics is the test of a philosophy’s account of experience (219.3).  Typically, philosophy errs by emphasizing just one factor among many which are blended by imagination in art—the paradigm of experience (219.4).


Heide Göttner-Abendroth, Nine Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetic

Do we see the following factors as unbeautiful?  Do we sense the possibility of a significantly enhanced way of living for ourselves and our communities? 



Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” (1937)

            II.  A reproduction is not equivalent to the original work of art.

“The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” (526.2); “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (527.1).  Call what is eliminated in mechanical reproduction the “aura.”  Mechanical, process reproduction can enlarge or slow down or make things appear outside their original context, including from the domain of tradition (527).  Film’s positive social significance is bound up with its “destructive liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage” (527). 

            III.  Perception is historical, and our perception is changing.  A thing’s aura is bound up with distance, and what the masses today demand is a reduction of distance (528).  "If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on a horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch."

IV.  Mechanical reproduction liberates art from religious ritual.  The traditional religious function of art continues to resonate even in the modern (from the [e.g., 15th century Italian] Renaissance) secular cult of beauty, which finally reacted against religion by making a religion of art (l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake).  Reproduction for the masses, defacing the value of the original, causes art to “begin to be based on another practice—politics” (529.2).

V.  There is a spectrum of values that function in art, from its value in the religious cult [worshiping group, not the popular sense of the term] to its “exhibition value”—taken to the level of an absolute, e.g., in the use of photography and film (529). 

VI.  The cult value of art retires into the human face—photographs pursue.  The beauty of a melancholy face cannot be treated in the way of mass culture.  And photographs attract a contemplative regard.  But captions enter the scene beneath the photographs, giving directives to viewers. 

IX.  Actors learn to perform for the camera, not an audience in a theater; they shoot scenes in fragmented ways, rather than performing them with the rhythm of the work of art.

X.  Actors, anxiously, become mass commodities who make no revolutionary challenge to social conditions.  Everyone becomes an expert (critic), and every one has access to the role of, e.g., writer.  A capitalistic “film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles . . . .”

            XI.  The film camera is invasive; only in the product does one see the scene free of the equipment involved in shooting the scene.

            XII.  Historically, a painting has been viewed by individuals or by a few a time, each responding to the work individually (perhaps responding in a reactionary way to a Picasso painting).  A movie is seen by the masses, who influence each other’s reception [interpretation and evaluation], perhaps responding to a Chaplin film in a progressive way—involving a “direct intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert” (i.e., as though the audience are all qualified to be expert critics).

            XIII.  Film makes possible new analysis of human behavior, highlighting details that would be lost in the theater.  Film has new resources for drawing attention to a “Freudian slip.”  This illustrates “the mutual penetration of art and science.”  Our normal way of paying little attention to a host of minor daily activities can be overturned in film which can direct our attention to aspects of common activities that are normally overlooked.

            Epilogue.  The masses are increasingly becoming the proletariat (the immiserated, industrial working class, oppressed by those who dominate the system of property).  All Fascism does for the masses is to give them the opportunity to express themselves.  Fascism introduces aesthetics into politics, and war is the result.  War fascinates with its “beauty.”  War mobilizes resources away from social needs.  This is the extreme of art for art’s sake.  The self-alienation of humankind “has reached such a state that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order” (537-38).



[How true was this when it was written in the early 20th century?  How true now?  Compare with Plato's critique of art devoted merely to making an immediate impression on the lower side of an audience.]



Theodor W. Adorno, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938)

  Main theme: the flight into conformism in the face of catastrophe.

            Light (popular) and serious (artistic) music clash in content, value, mass appeal and commercial function (531-532.1).

Classical music today is dominated by a small number of favorite pieces, which become trite, and whose ideas are not taken seriously (532.2).

The instrument (e.g., a tenor with a voluminous and high voice or a Stradivarius violin) becomes a fetish [an object of primitive worship], as though good music cannot be made with average instruments (533.1).

In the upside-down world of capitalism today, as Marx said, market values (the price—“exchange value”)—and the advertising function eclipse the actual enjoyment of music (the “use-value” of the music) (533.2-534).  There is psychological regression to an infantile state among listeners to popular music, abandoning a thoughtful response, listening with distraction in a way that is more like driving a car or football; childish, forcibly retarded; fleeing “the possibility of a different and oppositional music” (read carefully p. 543).

The popular music is advertised in a way that is forceful; the cult of name brands and “in” products takes over.  The identification of the listener with the fetish-music “give hit songs power over their victims.” 

Those who try to rise above this scene lapse into pseudoactivity and fall into sophisticated versions of the same traps.  “Their ecstasy is without content”; the ecstasy is compulsive, “like the ecstasies savages go into in beating the war drums.”  “Dance and music copy stages of sexual excitement only to make fun of them.”  Those dancing to the music “behave as if they were electrified by syncopation”; stock expressions of stock emotions prevail.  Or there is the ham radio listener, apparently quite different, but in fact equally pitiful.  Or the jazz amateur: “his agreement with everything dominant goes so far that he no longer produces any resistance”; he has “the passive capacity for adaptation to models from which to avoid straying” (544-46).

Hope: a time may come when clever fellows “may demand, instead of prepared material ready to be switched on, the improvisatory displacement of things . . . .  Even discipline can take over the expression of free solidarity if freedom becomes its content. (546.2).  Mahler suspends bourgeois concepts of creation.  The music of Schönberg and Webern “gives form to that anxiety, that terror, that insight into the catastrophic situation which others merely evade by regressing” (547.1).


Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (1978)

            As a rough generalization, the Frankfurt [Germany] School (the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Marcuse, and others) hold that the truth of capitalist society unmasks such social, economic, and political injustice (a goodness issue) that the arts are distorted.  Should art therefore be expected to take up the task of radical protest?  “Because of . . . Adorno's own complex emphasis on (modern) art's autonomy, he doubts both the effectiveness and the legitimacy of tendentious, agitative, or deliberately consciousness-raising art. Yet he does see politically engaged art as a partial corrective to the bankrupt aestheticism of much mainstream art.”  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/adorno/ 

            This essay of Marcuse, while sustaining many key Marxist ideas, is also a critique of dogmatic Marxist aesthetics.  For an artist to belong to, or to represent the interests of, the economically lower class, is neither necessary nor sufficient for aesthetic quality (555.1).  After analyzing the social content of a work, “the questions as to whether the particular work is good, beautiful, and true are still unanswered” (554.1).

For Marcuse, “art  . . . expresses a truth, an experience, a necessity which, although not in the domain of radical praxis [action], are nevertheless essential components of revolution.”  [Karl Marx (1818-1883] had called for revolution to overthrow governments that represent the capitalist order in which the bourgeoisie, the “haves,” the capitalist class, oppresses the proletariat, the “have nots,” the industrial working class, in an increasingly polarized system—rich getting richer, poor getting poorer.]

            The older Marxist doctrine that culture [part of the superstructure] merely reflects the material, economic base unfortunately devalued the individual consciousness and subconscious [Marcuse draws on Freud as well as on Marx] and thus devalued inwardness, emotions, and imagination—the soil where the drive toward revolution must grow.

By joining the content of our lives to the form of a poem, painting, or piece of music, the artist “sublimates” the emotions involved.  But art that is critical of the status quo “desublimates” perceivers’ energies, enabling a more powerful subversion, delegitimization, of existing institutions and conventional practices.  Forbidden and repressed aspects of reality emerge in art’s images of liberation.  “The poetry of Marlarmé . . . conjures up modes of perception, imagination, gestures—a feast of sensuousness which shatters everyday experience and anticipates a different reality principle” (555.2.)  Art transcends the conditions of its age to give, in its fictions, a transhistorical truth, a universal appeal: we can still experience a Greek tragedy or medieval epic as great.

Art is not only negative.  It is affirmative in its commitment to Eros (a more Freudian concept than a Platonic one), Life Instincts, which, in art, endure through the centuries no matter what befalls.

            The autonomy of art was forced upon art through the separation of mental and material labor, as a result of the prevailing relations of domination.  Dissociation from the process of production became a refuge and a vantage point from which to denounce the reality established through domination.” (554.4)  “Artistic activity, and to a great extent also its reception, become the privilege of an ‘elite’ removed from the material process of production” (555.0).

            “The works of Poe, Baudelaire, Proust, and Valéry . . . express a ‘consciousness of crisis’: a pleasure in decay, in destruction, in the beauty of evil; a celebration of the asocial, of the anomic—the secret rebellion of the bourgeois against his own class. . . .  In terms of political praxis, this literature remains elitist and decadent.  It does nothing in the struggle for liberation—except to open the tabooed zones of nature and society in which even death and the devil are enlisted as allies in the refusal to abide by the law and order of repression. . . .  Art cannot abolish the social division of labor which makes for its esoteric character, but neither can art ‘popularize’ itself without weakening its emancipatory impact” (555.last-556-0).


Autonomy of art: Harold Osborne describes the view as involving:

the concentration of attention on the work of art as a thing in its own right, an artifact with standards and functions of its own, and not an instrument made to further purposes which could equally be promoted otherwise than by art objects. . . . A work of art, it is now held, is in concept an artifact made for the purpose of being appreciated in the special mode of aesthetic contemplation; and although particular works of art may be intended to do other things and may in fact serve other purposes as well as this, the excellence of any work of art as art is assessed in terms of its suitability for such contemplation. This is what is meant by claiming that art is autonomous: it is not assessed by external standards applicable elsewhere, but by standards of its own. (Aesthetics and Art Theory: An Historical Introduction (New York: Dutton, 1970), pp. 262-263.)


Species beings= “men and women capable of living in that community of freedom which is the potential of the species”

Eros=love, “libido”

Thanatos=death, Freud’s postulated instinct toward death (destructive toward others or self)

Ideology=the ideas that capitalist society uses to justify itself

Bourgeoisie=the capitalist class

Proletariat=industrial working class, for Marx, the advancing class, with the potential of revolution




Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind”


            M-P challenges the materialistic, mechanistic, physics-and-chemistry centered philosophy of the body.  He proposes not just an inner, subjective view of things; rather he makes a claim about the truth of what we experience.


1.  Science is rooted in the world as it is perceived in our life and through the body.  Science would do well to recover its relation to its perceptual origins.  [Note the corporeal turn, the turn to the body, as a new departure for Western philosophy; Hegel and Husserl preceded M-P on this theme, but M-P raised it to high prominence.] 

            The definiteness of the world described by science presupposes a process in which definite characteristics were ascribed to something that was initially experienced as not being so definite.  We can never remove all ambiguity, since we only disambiguate by focusing on something, which necessarily simultaneously leaves its surroundings in a relatively less definite state.

The painter responds to a higher urgency than that of (scientific) knowledge or (ethical) action.  Art alone suspends opinions and advice in order to draw upon the subtle fabric of brute meaning, of which activism takes no note.  [As a philosophical movement, phenomenology aspired to suspend judgment regarding all manner of conventionally accepted interpretations, scientific, metaphysical, and other.  M-P is suggesting that the painter achieves what phenomenology aims at.]

What knowledge—“science”—does the painter have or seek?


2.  Section two is on the primacy of seeing.  One way to approach the main point here is to say that for M-P art portrays the truth of things, the truth of the way things emerge in our vision as what they are.  Before the world is cut up into subjects and objects there is the mysterious interplay of vision and the visible.  Our body is the ambiguous frontier of this interplay.


            Notice the ways of conceiving the body that are set aside.  M-P is obviously not giving a scientific analysis; he refers to the psychological theory of eye movement as a “reflex” action, but the movement of the eye is more than just that.  His point is that we enter and explore our world through the body, through the movements of our eyes; those movements cannot be understood as simply physical.  Nor is subjectivity properly understood as hidden, remote, or separate from the body.  [Here M-P distances himself from a certain interpretation of Cartesian dualism of mind and body.]  To try to piece together a concept of the human by adding externals—body, mind, spirit, and so on—misses the experience, the phenomenon of embodied vision.

Bodily interpenetration of seeing/seen: the vocation of the painter to share his or her unique embodiment of the private-and-common cosmos. 

            The body both sees and is seen, touches and is touched; it is both body-subject and object.  See the remarkable paragraph 3 on p. 284 where M-P begins by narrating the obvious and elaborates it into a profound vision.  (Is it still intelligible at the end?  Or does this fall into needless unclarity, confusion, and error?)

            Listen: “Quality, light, color, depth, which are there before us, are there only because they awaken an echo in our body and because the body welcomes them” (285.2).  The more traditional way, following Descartes (1596-1650) would be to say, “Quality, light, color, depth, are there before us in the objective world, and we become aware of them because they appear to the conscious subject, the mind.”  Descartes does not deny the role of the senses, but the senses would be important because they furnish data for the mind.  With M-P we have the body recognizing things—but not the body in the abstract Cartesian sense of a material thing, void of awareness.  The body for M-P is the body-subject.

            The next two sentences describe the birth of art, painting: things, which “arouse in me a carnal formula of their presence,” can “give rise to some [external] visible shape in which anyone else would recognize those motifs which support his own inspection of the world.”  To make sense of this, compare the example of how seeing a gesture made by someone else can lead me to make the same gesture.  This phenomenon, gestural impregnation, is common in young children; we naturally tend to imitate all kinds of things we see; in this way, the thing calls forth its own re-presentation.

            Art portrays the body’s communion with the world.  Developing one’s vision is done [first and foremost] not by intellectual training received from other minds, but by seeing and learning by further seeing.

            In every civilization, painting celebrates the enigma of visibility.  Note: it’s an enigma; we should not expect of M-P an account that would have the clarity of an explanation that would dissipate the enigma.

            How does a mountain appear?  How does it make itself a mountain before our eyes?  We cannot simply say that there are basic elements out of which people construct the mountain—light, lighting, shadows, reflections, color—because it takes an especially cultivated attention to notice these things in the first place.

            Rembrandt’s painting, The Nightwatch quietly presents us with two perspectives which, literally speaking, cannot be simultaneous (“incompossible”=impossible together). 

            Vision “knows everything” (in the sense that all meanings that are later made definite in science and philosophy are prefigured here) and “makes itself in us.”

            It can seem to the painter as though her gestures as a painter emanate from the things she is painting.  It is as though “the forest was looking at me” or even paints itself through me.

             Why does M-P talk of the mixing of categories, distinctions that have been central in the history of philosophy?  Essence and existence, imaginary and real, visible and invisible; “carnal essences” and “mute meanings.”  The visible is the realm prior to definite interpretation.  There is neither definite meaning nor utter meaninglessness.  The painter dwells in the ambiguity.  The point is not that it’s wrong to make clear distinctions; the point is rather to indicate the realm prior to those distinctions.

A certain kind of absolute perspective is suggested here, at this level prior to any clear separation of subject from object: combine vision with the way things “see” the seer.

 Idios kosmos : one’s own, private cosmos.

Koinos kosmos: the one cosmos, common to all.

Oneiric: dream-like.


Section 4

            Modern painting—which abandoned trying to render things in a manner that would give the illusion of being just like the things themselves—opened up the  metaphysical truth of vision, the truth of painting, a truth which is never solidly achieved, definitively established, or finally defined; but it is a truth which underlies all other experience: the profound and ambiguous realm opened up by the painter.

            We conventionally see things with their definite, obvious appearances; we “know” what they are and how they are.  Painting opens up the experiential realm that is paved over by that seeming obviousness of common sense and scientific treatment.


            There are several dimensions that are woven together in a way that can never be decisively solved.  We may speak of color and space (referring to Cezanne) or of line (referring to Klee) or of movement (referring to Rodin). 


            Notice: this phenomenological reflection is about painting as the setting forth the process of appearing as the disclosure of truth.  Beauty is hardly a theme (the passing exception is on p. 295).


Section 5


            Is there progress in painting?  If elements could be isolated and frozen, then solutions to certain problems might be claimed, but there is ceaseless change and a mutual relatedness of all elements and inexhaustible possibilities connoted in each work.  Nor is there progress in any other significant dimension of civilization.  “Each creation changes, alters, enlightens, deepens, confirms, exalts, re-creates, or creates in advance all the others.”  What the painter wants “is beyond the means and goals at hand and commands from afar all our useful activity” (298).


            [Why should anyone accept this idea?  What is the reason why this intelligent philosopher can be led to propose such a thing?  If we are able to detect a certain logic behind the position, what way is there to avoid his conclusion?]



Two notes of commentary

Kelly Porter, a student of aesthetics, wrote the following (quoted with permission) in the Fall of 2005.  It expresses better than anything else I’ve seen what Merleau-Ponty is getting at in his philosophy of perception.  I’ll give you the context in order to convey the drama of the event.

            “The idea of walking in beauty did not seem feasible to me.  I was very confused and had no idea how to being to walk in beauty.  Is this something I should have been doing all along?  Will I be able to learn how to walk in beauty in time to write this paper?  Have I been walking in beauty all my life and have yet to realize it?  These questions began to take over.  I felt like my brain was just too full to accept any kind of new information, especially something as overwhelming as discovering beauty.  My journey began by trying really hard to focus on what I thought I should find beautiful.  I began taking a hard and concentrated stare at flowers along walkways, children playing in the street, and the color of paints in a mixing tray.  I felt like that harder I concentrated my view the faster the beautiful faded from my reach.  I could not figure it out.  I went on for a while, looking and listening every day, hoping that maybe I would catch beauty off guard.  I pictured myself sneaking up behind beauty, so that I, too, could at last capture this experience.

            “The days went by and the paper due date was bearing down.  Along with this situation arose many others, the death of my grandmother, a court trial, class registration, family responsibilities, finances, hunger, and pain—a list I am sure many share.  One morning I was on my daily commute; the weather was extreme gloom, a wonderful match for my state of mind.  About a half-hour into the commute I found myself traffic-jammed on a bridge overlooking Route 8.  As with most traffic jams, there seemed to be no known cause, just complete frustration.  About ten minutes had passed, and no one had moved one inch.  People began laying on their horns and throwing expletives out their windows.  You could just feel the common negative energy weighing down; the air was just so thick.  I remember thinking: I would like to see who could find beauty on this bridge!  A few moments later, this dash of yellow cut through my right eye and made its way across my windshield.  I saw black and white and yellow swoosh by.  My eyes followed in complete awe; in one glorious landing the yellow dash rested atop the bridge railing.  The yellow dash took on its canary form.  It sat for a while, perched, cleaning its feathers.  I began to notice I was not the only one completely immersed in this bird; I could see a long line of turned heads.  The horns had stopped.  The canary took flight and soon the traffic began flowing.  I remember feeling kind of strange.  It was not a bad kind of strange, but more like something had washed over me.  I still cannot find a way to put it into words, so I will leave it the way it is.  I do feel, however, that this was a moment that I was in beauty.”

            To illustrate how the most elementary perception is thick with the meanings of a world coming to the birth, read these some excerpts from the opening pages of the first chapter of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception

            “Let us imagine a white patch on a homogeneous background.  All the points in the patch have a certain ‘function’ in common, that of forming themselves into a ‘shape’.  The colour of the shape is more intense, and is it were more resistant than that of the background; the edges of the white patch ‘belong’ to it, and are not part of the background although they adjoin it: the patch appears to be placed on the background and does not break it up.  Each part arouses the expectation of more than it contains, and this elementary perception is therefore already charged with meaning.”

            “To see is to have colours or lights before one, to hear is to encounter sounds, to feel is to come up against qualities, and in order to know what sensation is, is it not enough to have seen the colour red or to have heard the note A?  Red or green are not sensations, but sense-data, and quality is not an element of consciousness, but a property of the object. . . .  If we consider it in the experience itself which evinces it, it is as rich and mysterious as the object, or indeed the whole spectacle, perceived.  This red patch which I see on the carpet is red only in virtue of a shadow which lies across it, its quality is apparent only in relation to the play of light upon it, and hence as an element in a spatial configuration.  Moreover the colour can be said to be there only if it occupies an area of a certain size, too small an area not being describable in these terms.  Finally this red would literally not be the same if it were not the ‘woolly red’ of a carpet.”



Nelson Goodman


    The next readings consider the question, “What is art?”  As philosophers, the authors reflect on the way definitions are attempted.  Nelson’s answer is that it is more productive to ask, “When is art?” rather than “What is art?” since something may only function as art on certain occasions.  To summarize too crudely, when something functions as art, some of its properties function as symbols—and NG has an extremely wide concept of symbol: see 240; 241.1; 245.0.


            Aiming at a definition (one interpretation of what it means to seek to grasp what Plato called a “form”), in classical terms the ideal is to state necessary and sufficient conditions for the correct application of the term.  X is a work of art if and only if X is [fill in the blank].  Note: this is not the same question as the question whether something is a good work of art.  Some philosophers try to give one or more necessary conditions.  E.g., “If it’s art, it must (necessarily) be intentionally created or presented.  Some philosophers try to give one or more sufficient conditions.  E.g., “If most the art professors would classify this work as a paradigm case of a work of art, that would be sufficient to classify it to be a work of art.”  You can challenge such definitions by coming up with a counterexample, something that satisfies the allegedly sufficient condition, but which is not classify as art, something that lacks the necessary condition, but which is art. 

Nelson Goodman (1906-1998), who began and ended his academic career as a philosopher at Harvard, was deeply involved in the arts as a collector, as the director of an art gallery, choreographer and concept originator for contemporary works.  His wife, Katharine Sturgis, was a skilled painter.  “In 1967, at the School of Education of Harvard, he established an interdisciplinary program for the study of education and the arts, “Project Zero,” which he directed until 1971. Still at Harvard, he founded and directed the Summer Dance program. It is, then, not at all surprising that, amongst Goodman's works, we find, next to philosophical production, multimedia projects that combine . . . painting (including Sturgis's work), music, and dance . . . .” (Alessandro Giovannelli, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/goodman-aesthetics  © 2005  November 29, 2005)

In the first selection, from Ways of World-Making, Goodman sets forth a concept of symbolic—not to rule out a different and common use, but to articulate fresh clarity.  “Works that represent anything, no matter what and no matter how prosaically” are symbolic.  “Every representational work is a symbol; and art without symbols is restricted to art without subject” (239).  “In the second place, not only representational works are symbolic.  An abstract painting that represents nothing and is not representational at all may express, and so symbolize, a feeling or other quality, or an emotion or idea” (241).  Some strings of words symbolize themselves (240).  How can we distinguish properties of works that symbolize from those that do not symbolize (since distinctions between intrinsic versus extrinsic and formal versus non-formal don’t work)?  Consider the way a swatch of fabric in a textile shop symbolizes the texture and color (not the size and shape) of the fabric one may purchase—in those typical circumstances in the shop.  Thus even the purist’s painting symbolizes the properties “that the picture makes manifest, selects, focuses upon, exhibits,  heightens in our consciousness—those that it shows forth—in short, those properties that it does not merely possess but exemplifies, stands as an example of” (243).  All art symbolizes, either by representation, or by expression, or by exemplification.

There are lots of answer to the question “What is art?” but none of them “carries any conviction” (244).  The wrong question is being asked.  However, the question, “When is art?”—when is something functioning as a work of art—does have an answer.  The answer, however, is not in the classical terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (see below), but in terms of five properties--symptoms--that tend to be associated with what we would call art.  

            Pay attention to Goodman’s strategy in handling the problem of defining art.  As a philosopher, he rejects the Platonic idea of essences (“forms”), so it is not surprising that he presents no essence of art.  He is more interested in what art does than in what art is (245).  He approaches the question thus: “The question just what characteristics distinguish or are indicative of the symbolizing that constitutes functioning as a work of art calls for careful study in the light of a general theory of symbols” (244).  He advances five characteristics which he calls symptoms.  These symptoms are

·       not “disjunctively necessary”: in other words, it may not be necessary for any of them to be present in order for something to be appropriately recognized as a work of art. 

·       Nor are the symptoms “conjunctively (as a syndrome) sufficient)”; in other words, if all the symptoms are present, you don’t necessarily have a work of art.


Nevertheless, the symptoms do "tend to focus attention on the symbol rather than, or at least along with, what it refers to" (245).  The five symptoms are

(1) “syntactic density, where the finest differences [in the symbols] in certain respects constitute a difference between symbols.”  The arrangement of things is meaningful in detail.  Recall the subtle (or "fine") differences in the two sides of the face in the painting of Madame Cézanne: those differences indicated her as a young person and as an older person.  [Low syntactic density is illustrated by a ballot where any dark mark in the little rectangle counts as a vote.  A child's drawing has low semantic density, since two somewhat different drawings would count as equivalent pictures of mommy and daddy.]


(2) "semantic density, where there are symbols to refer to the finest differences in the world to which the symbols refer."  [E.g., in the continuous lighting that a sunset brings into the sky, there are countless shades, and painting can represent (refer to in the mode of symbolize) that continuity by the most subtle mixing and blending of its colors.  An example of low semantic density?  A paint-by-the-numbers exercise, where the painter does not mix or colors, but simply selects from a limited number of tubes of paint which color to apply.]


(3) “relative repleteness, where comparatively many aspects of a symbol are significant—for example, a single-line drawing of a mountain by Hokusai where every feature of shade, line, thickness, etc. counts, in contrast with perhaps the same line as a chart of daily stockmarket averages, where all that counts is the height of the line above the base.”


(4) “exemplification, where a symbol . . . [serves] as a sample of properties it literally or metaphorically [e.g., the music is cheerful] possesses.”  Your attention is directed to certain features of the object, e.g., the shade, line, and thickness of a line.


(5)  “multiple and complex reference, where a symbol performs several integrated and interacting referential functions, some direct and some mediated through other symbols.”  [Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio, symbolized (1) the heroism of a loving couple facing a tyrant (who could symbolize any tyrant) and, (2) given the place and time of the performance, the tyranny of Napoleon (not explicit, for that would have been too dangerous).]


"Exemplification—the sort of reference typical, for instance, of tailors' swatches—requires possession. In addition to possession, however, which of course by itself is not a form of symbolization, exemplification requires that the exemplifying symbol refers back to the label or predicate that denotes it. Hence, exemplification is “possession plus reference” (Goodman 1976, 53). When a feature is referred to in this way, it is “exhibited, typified, shown forth” (Goodman 1976, 86). While any blue object is denoted by the label “blue,” only those things—e.g., blue color swatches—that also refer to “blue” and analogous labels exemplify such color, are “samples” of it. An important characteristic of samples is that they are selective in the way they function symbolically (see also Goodman 1978h, 63-70). A tailor's swatch does not exemplify all of the features it possesses—or all the predicates that denote it—but rather only those for which it is a symbol (hence, e.g., predicates denoting color and texture, and not predicates denoting size or shape). Which of its properties does a sample exemplify depends on the system within which the sample is being used: color and texture are relevant to the systems used in tailoring, not size and shape.


            The second selection, from Languages of Art, sets forth that what’s crucial in art is its cognitive function, and that focusing on this unlocks other questions in aesthetics.  Art is not about beauty (see the argument in the first paragraph of 247—and think how a reply might go).  Nor is art mainly about preparation for other activities in life, nor about the expression of a play impulse, nor about communication. 


What all three miss is that the drive is curiosity and the aim enlightenment.  Use of symbols beyond immediate need is for the sake of understanding, not practice; what compels is the urge to know, what delights is discovery, and communication is secondary to the apprehension and formulation of what is to be communicated.  The primary purpose is cognition in and for itself; the practicality, pleasure, compulsion, and communicative utility all depend upon this.  (248)


Symbolization, then, is to be judged fundamentally by how well it serves the cognitive purpose: by the delicacy of its discriminations and the aptness of its allusions; by the way it works in grasping, exploring, and informing the world; by how it analyzes, sorts, orders, and organizes; by how it participates in the making, manipulation, retention, and transformation of knowledge.  Considerations of simplicity and subtlety, power and precision, scope and selectivity, familiarity and freshness, are all relevant and often contend with one another; their weighting is relative to our interests, our information, and our inquiry. (249)


But what is distinctive about symbolization in art?


What we know through art is felt in our bones and nerves and muscles as well as grasped by our minds, . . . all in the sensitivity and responsiveness of the organism participates in the invention and interpretation of symbols. (249)


This approach helps with other questions in aesthetics.  Moreover, we can now see that the difference between science and art is not the interest in cognition, but the characteristics of the symbols.



Arthur Danto, “The Artworld” (1964)


“an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld” (477)


Introduction.  In ancient Greece a painting of grapes was such a successful illusion that “even birds” were deceived, as they pecked at the grapes and tore the painting.  The idea of art as mimesis in the sense of imitation in the sense of, more or less, a mirror image—this idea was discredited as a sufficient condition for art with the invention of photography and the painting of Kandinsky.  Aesthetics could no longer accept the older approach to definition, where the goal was to find a theory that could be tested by its fit with the intuitions of the ordinary, untutored person.  “These days one might not be aware he was on artistic terrain without an artistic theory to tell him so.  And part of the reason for this lies in the fact that terrain is constituted artistic in virtue of artistic theories, so that one use of theories, in addition to helping us discriminate art from the rest, consists in making art possible.” (471)


The late 19th- and early 20th century revolution in art is comparable to a revolution in science [as characterized by Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 blockbuster, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: the previous, standard theory has so many counterexamples that ad hoc ways of fixing it by small modifications collapse into a revolutionary condition in which another—in the case of modern art—several theories come into competition.]  One of the new theories is RT (the Reality Theory of art: that art does not imitate but creates a new reality).  There is an ontological innovation when a new kind of object enters the scene—neither ordinary reality nor imitation but real. 

We need to understand the new art works in terms of RT.  Roy Lichtenstein paints 10-12’ high comic-strip panels, in which scale is essential [highly exemplified in Goodman’s terms] (unlike in the past when essentially the same work could have been done significantly smaller).  When Jasper Johns paints the number 3 or a map, any attempted imitation will also be a 3 or a map and hence a member of the same class of objects—but note that, classically, imitations were a set of objects ontologically different from the originals they copied.  [Remember Benjamin’s angle on technical reproduction?]

Remember Plato’s talk in the Republic about the bed of the imitator being different from the bed of the carpenter, which, in turn, is different from the form (which the carpenter, but not the artist, needs to know?  Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg have made beds—modified—as art works. 


One can’t discover just by observation that the art bed is not a standard bed, since, qua physical objects, they share so many of the same predicates.  Paint streaks are part of Rauschenberg’s bed, but not part of a conventional bed. 

There is a special use of the word is to indicate artistic identification: this small, black, V-shaped object in Van Gogh’s painting “is a crow”; the stick figure with the smile “is me”; the figure in this painting “is Icarus” [the one who tried to fly to the sun, and whose approach melted the wax in his wings, causing him to fall to his death in the sea: an illustration of hubris and the need for moderation based on self-knowledge]; this painting  just is black paint on a white canvas. 

Two paintings might look identical but be very different art works because one represents the path of a moving particle [Newton’s First Law: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it] and the other represents masses, one bearing down upon the other, which is bearing up against the one above [Newton’s Third Law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction].  If someone with no aesthetic education simply says, “All I see is paint,” it’s just shows that he fails to grasp artistic identification which will allow him to constitute it a work of art.  In pure abstraction (without any expression) the artist “has returned to the physicality of paint through an atmosphere compounded of artistic theories and the history of recent and remote painting, elements of which he is trying to refine out of his own work; and as a consequence of this his work belongs in this atmosphere and is part of this history.  He has achieved abstraction through rejection of artistic identifications,” but in fact when he says, “That black paint is black paint” he is not just repeating the obvious but using artistic identification.


            It is theory that takes up, e.g., Andy Warhol’s handmade Brillo boxes into the art world.


A breakthrough in art adds new structural possibilities.  Let us represent the small number of alternatives a century ago as either representational or non-representational, either expressionistic or non-expressionistic.  There were examples of four types, and, though fashion prefers some types over others, “one row in the matrix is as legitimate as another” [Danto’s approach to relativism].  New kinds of art make a more complex set of possibilities.  [My guitar music is now, because of the invention of electric guitars, acoustic guitar music—and hence enriched for having a significant additional predicate.] 





Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa

(New York: Penguin, 2005).  Summary notes. 

The Art of Making a World.  Bonnard’s odd and beautiful relationship with his wife, manifest in his paintings.

The Art of Being Artless.  Ordinary photos that turn out to have aesthetic value.

The Art of Having a Lofty Perspective.  Beauty in nature and art is not predictably findable in the expected mountain tops but “an organic, shifting elusive, and therefore more desirable goal of our devotion, which we must make an effort to grasp” (69).  Cf. the Kantian sublime: “awe and fear mingled with joy” (66-67).  Marjorie Hope Nicholson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: “Awe, compounded of mingled terror and exultation, once reserved for God, passed over in the 17th century first to an expanded cosmos, then from the macrocosm to the greatest objects in the geocosm—mountains, ocean, desert” (67). 

The Art of Making Art without Lifting a Finger.  Deliberately weird; suicide.  Anti-art, non-art, staged events [cf. the theatre of the absurd].  “‘Art  has been veritably invaded by life, if life means flux, change, chance, time, unpredictability.  Sometimes the difference between the two is sheer consciousness, the awareness that what seemed to be a stain on the wall is in fact a work of art’”—sculptor Scott Burton in the 1960s (80).  “Be alert to the senses.  Elevate the ordinary.  Art is about a heightened state of awareness.  Try to treat everyday life, or at least part of it, as you would a work of art” (84 [not the author presenting his own view]).  John Cage’s composition for piano titled 4:33; there is no sound for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, except such sounds as are made by the audience, come in from outside, etc.  Sol Lewitt gave to those who were to actualize his art works “instructions, which may be only a thought you are meant to contemplate, or plans for drawings or actions he devised that could be carried out or not” (84).  “The input of others—the joy, boredom, frustration, or whatever they feel—is part of his art; it accounts for how the same work may produce a variety of results.”  Conceptual art.  Yoko Ono: “A tiny prod toward personal enlightenment, the art of positive consciousness.  Very Zen.”

The Art of Collecting Light Bulbs.  Walter Benjamin collected books.  Collectors “take up arms against dispersal” (97).  Albert C. Barnes brought fine works and exhibited them in weird juxtapositions that led to insights; and he bequeathed his collection so that future audiences could see it on the condition that no changes be made in his arrangement of the art works; a judge overturned his will in Philadelphia in 2004.  Collections blur the separation of medical science and art “by dwelling in the marvelous.”  The light bulb collection of a character in Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man

The Art of Maximizing your Time.  Two women, one Jewish—d. Auschwitz, 1942—ambitiously devote themselves to making art beyond what they are capable of accomplishing with a passion that exhausts and consumes their lives.

The Art of Finding Yourself When You’re Lost.  Taking photographs of a harrowing adventure in the Antarctic.  Embroidery representing baseball themes, done in prison.  Stunning quilts crafted in rural Alabama.

The Art of Staring Productively at Naked Bodies.  Sheer habitual persistence in painting “nudes.”

The Art of the Pilgrimage.  From Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece to earth art—iconoclastic and minimalist to the extreme.  You have to travel to see it!

The Art of Gum Ball Machines.  The wondrously striking found in the ordinary, from the French painter Chardin to Wayne Thiebault.

[If, as it seems, the perspective is finally non-religious, this is the gentlest version possible of such communication: or possibly the flat juxtaposition of the most deeply religious art next to art apparently without any spiritual vector is ironic, giving space to experience the value gradient.]



To learn a bit about the recipient for this year's Pritzker Prize for architecture, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5331826



In response to art history students' request for information about postmodernism:




I.  Suspicion of (sometimes):

            Any idea that could conceivably be pressed into the service of Fascism

“grand narratives”

Presumptuous claims of all sorts

Rationalism, and “totalizing” projects of total comprehension of any realm or person.

All traditional rules of art


The aura of an irreproducible work of art

Traditional religion

Traditional humanistic conceptions of the individual personality

Traditional presuppositions generally

The idea of the subject

The idea of the author: “readers create their own meanings, regardless of the author’s intentions: the texts they use to do so are thus ever-shifting, unstable and open to question” (summary of a 1967 writing of Roland Barthes, 1915-1980, IP 74).





The West

Dead white European males

Truth, at least in the idea that the mind, a mirror of reality, can truly represent the ways things are objectively.



Even what is most recent

“Tradition in the West is constituted and indeed energized by what is in combat with it.”  (Introducing Postmodernism [IP] p. 9)  What ever is most recent is included


In favor of (sometimes)

            The infinitely great, the sublime, which is unrepresentable.

            Non-Western cultures

            Dada—which “means nothing . . . a meaningful nothing when nothing has any meaning”—nihilist protest to the vast mechanized assembly-line slaughter of World War One . . . [exploiting] modern technology—machine-guns, poison gas, tanks and airplanes” (IP 32)

            The aura of . . . an artist or an event, an installation (e.g., a ready-made), the power of critics, museums, art dealers and consumers to establish what will count as art.

            The other

            Earth art

            Anti-art scandal

            Images of a “reality” that has been eclipsed in our consumerist society

            “a realization that the problems of representation, reproduction  and legitimation are far more complex than were ever imagined by their predecessors” (IP 53). [cf. truth, beauty, and goodness?] 


            Except for some of the preceding lists, the quotations and summaries derive from Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt with Ziauddin Sardar and Patrick Curry: Introduction to Postmodernism (Cambridge: UK Icon Books, 2004).  The book highlights three issues as central: representation, reproduction, legitimation [cf. truth, beauty, and goodness?]


            French sociologist Jean Baudrillard: four stages: art (1) is the reflection of a basic reality, (2) masks and perverts a basic reality, (3) marks the absence of a basic reality, (4) bears no relation to any reality whatever—it is its own pure simulacrum.  “Reality becomes redundant and we have reached hyper-reality in which images breed incestuously with each other without reference to reality or meaning” (IP 54-55).  In other words, “the border between art and reality [vanishes] as the two collapse into the universal simulacrum.  A collapse into total semblance.” (IP 72)

            Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger and others represented a turn to language (rather than ideas in the mind) to explicate meaning. 

Swiss linguistics professor Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) studied the structure of language:


For Saussure, meaning arises out of a system that arbitrarily—according to convention—associates a sounds (signifiers) with concepts (signifieds), thus forming signs.  A (“syntactic”) sequence of words, for example, is formed by selecting among alternative candidates for each element (subject, verb, object, and so on).  Binary oppositions are the keys to language, logic, thinking, and culture.

            “Reflexivity doesn’t mean simply to “reflect on” (which u sually comes later, or too late) but is an immediate critical consciousness of what one is doing, thinking or writing.  However, since it is impossible to do anything innocently in our age of lost innocence, reflexivity can easily slide into ironic self-consciousness, cynicism and politically correct hypocrisy” (IP 73).

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) The death of the author (1967), summarized: “Readers create their own meanings, regardless of the author’s intentions: the texts they use to do so are thus ever-shifting, unstable and open to question” (IP 74).  In the end, a text leaves you with an impenetrable enigmatic sense: “a closure, a retreat and a suspension of meaning” (IP 75). 

            “A privileged or ‘meta’-linguistic position is a mirage created by language itself.  Structuralism, semiology and other forms of metalinguistics which promised liberation from the enigma of meaning only lead back to language, a no exit, and the consequent dangers of a relativist or even nihilistic view of human reason itself.” (IP 76)

            Deconstruction (Derrida).  “Any meaning or identity (including our own) is provisional and relative, . . . it can always be traced further back to a prior network of differences, and further back again . . . almost to infinity or the ‘zero degree’ of sense.” IP 79.  Deconstruction is a strategy for revealing the underlayers of meanings “in” a text that were suppressed or assumed in order for it to take its actual form—in particular the assumptions of “presence” (the hidden representations of guaranteed certainty).” (IP 80).  “Texts . . . include resources that run counter to their assertions and/or their authors’ intentions.”  “Meaning includes identity (what it is) and difference (what it isn’t) and it is therefored continuously being “deferred”.  Derrida invented a word for this process, combining difference and deferral—différance.” (IP 80)

            Michel Foucault (1926-80) studied different historical periods in terms of the prevailing knowledge or “episteme,” which was legitimated by power that invalidated certain groups; in the modern the disqualified groups are the mad, the sick, and the criminal.” (IP 82).  What we have is “a multiple, overlapping and interactive series of legitimate vs. excluded histories” (IP 83).  “By the mid-70s, Foucault . . . focused more on how power moulds everyone (and not only its victims involved in its exercise.  He showed how power and knowledge fundamentally depend on each other, so that the extention of one is simultaneously the extension of the other.  In so doing, the reason of rationalism requires—even creates—social categories of the mad, criminal and deviant against which to define itself.  It is thus sexist, racist and imperialist in practice” (IP 83).

Art reflects on and defines the limits of the episteme, including what it excludes.  “Theory does not express, translate or serve to apply practice: it is practice.  But it is local and regional . . . not totalizing . . . it is not to ‘awaken consciousness’ that we struggle but to sap power . . . it is an activity conducted along-side those who struggle for power and not their illumination from a safe distance” (IP 86).  “Power is also productive and enabling.”  Sex?  “It is not simply a matter of discovering the ‘truth’ about our repressed desires by embracing a model of liberation.  The problem is—how do people become subject to a particular kind of sexual experience?” (IP 87)  “Foucault is saying that power isn’t what some possess and others don’t, but a tactical and resourceful narrative.  Power is in the texture of our lives—we live it rather than have it.” (IP 87)

            Note the “Foucaultian” commentary on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, mentioning eugenics, “measuring the excluded inferior” (IP 85).

            Jacques Lacan (1901-81): “The unconscious is structures as a language”= “the unconscious functions by signs, metaphors, symbols, and in this sense is “like” a language”; “the unconscious only comes to exist after language is acquired” (IP 88-89).  The child’s image of himself (as an adult) is a fiction.  The boy’s penis as signifier gives access to the realm of power where the symbolic order establishes rules (while the girl remains trapped in the imaginary realm).  A feminist response?  “Remember, structuralism says that meaning is not an independent representation of the real world grasped by an already constituted subject, but part of a system that produces meanings, the world and the possibility of a subject.

            Luce Irigaray (b. Belgium, 1932): women appear as exterior representations of something else—monuments of Justice, Liberty, Peace . . . or as objects of men’s desire (IP 95).  For Irigaray, “Either there is no feminine sexuality except as men imagine it or feminine sexuality is a schizoid duality (a) subordinate to the needs and desires of men [and] (b) autonomous and explorable only within a radically separatist women’s movement” (IP 97).

                        Postmodern feminism comes in, not with equalitarian goals nor with separatist communities, but with “a deconstructionist notion of a Subject beyond the fixed categories of gender (100-01).  Skepticism of any claimed “great truths” (Marx, Darwin, Freud) or “metanarratives” that purport to legitimate scientific or political projects (the Human Genome project) to lead humanity toward an alleged liberation (102-04).  Hegel’s attempt to unify all knowledge is illustrated by the modern university (105), but the very process of training students is overturned by a new approach to knowledge as a consumer commodity to be used in market exchange—apart from use value [a Marxian critique of fetishized commodities in capitalism] (106).

Some interpretations of selected parts of 20th century physics are used as analogues to substantiate the postmodern vision with ideas of “holism, interconnection and order out of chaos and the idea of an autonomous, self-governing nature” (109); but the aim of science to achieve a total theory of everything is criticized by postmodernists who proclaim that scientific knowledge is manufactured and that a more accurate description of the condition of science, according to Paul Feyerabend, is anarchy [where there is no principle of scientific method that, if followed consistently, would not have prevented some important discovery] (109).  “String Theory might just be wacky “post”-physics but it conforms to the modernist scientific spirit of reducing everything-including our consciousness—to smallest bits in its quest for the Grand Unified Theory of Everything” (188).


Part III: The Genealogy of Postmodern History.

History continues only in an altered sense, since postmodernism subverted any notion of linear history or progress.    “At 3:32 p.m. on 15 July 1972 the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis, Missouri, a prize-winning complex designed for low income people, was dynamited as uninhabitable” and taken by postmodernists as the end of the modernist architecture of buildings as “machines for living” (115).  Postmodern architecture “offers the vernacular, an emphasis on the local and particular as opposed to modernist universalism.  This means a return to ornament, with references to the historic past and its symbolism, but in the ironic manner of parody, pastiche and quotation.  Venturi and other postmoderns propose a “comicstrip” architecture—eclectic, ambiguous, humorous.  Unpretentious, in short.  An example of this is Philip Johnson . . . who produced the New York A.T.& T. Building in the shape of a grandfather clock topped off with a Chippendale broken pediment (116-17).  “High modernist visionaries like Le Corbusier believed they could achieve the transformation of social life by transforming architectural space as a substitute for political revolution” (118).  “Modernist experimenters failed to change the world of capitalism—in fact, the utopian purity of their glass towers ended by glorifying the power of banks, airlines and multinational corporations” (119).  Postmodern architects aim to use the computer to “multiply difference” (119).  The protest is that “electronic simulation does not break down uniform standardization but accelerates and morbidly intensifies it” and this architecture is found all around the world and hence is not pluralist and local (120).  Adorno in Prisms: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today” (1956).  In hypermodernism (now) artificial foods are manufactured that are indigestible, the financial markets generate continuous e-trading, [the dot.com fiasco, and exotic financial products that are pushing risk to new world heights], which unprecedented economic dislocation and instant millionaires (126-27).  Cyberculture blurs reality (129).  Fetish “sports” shoes become occasions for murder and theft (132).  Baudrillard argued that the first Gulf War was an impossibility and when it happened was a “only a hyperreal representation on our TV screens” (134); he calls intellectuals to “stop legitimizing the notion that there is some “ultimate truth” behind appearances.  Then, maybe, the masses will turn their backs on the media and public opinion management will collapse” (135).  Advertisements for products construct images of interracial cooperation while at the same time giving implications of violence and disturbing images (138-39).  Gangsta rap, condemned by most blacks, is consumed by “white suburban adolescents looking for a cause and style that gives them a sense of identity” and created sometimes by people who actually live that violence they glorify (140-41).  Cyber sex and violence become increasingly extreme.  Postmodern films “magnify a playful mixing of images and reality, a dislocation and erasure of personal history and identity” (146).  Salman Rushdie, a British writer born in India was sentenced to death in 14 February 1989 in a fatwa issued by Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeni for writing a novel considered blasphemous of the prophet Mohammad.  Rushdie defended himself, and on the day of the fatwa said in an interview, “Doubt, it seems to me, is the central condition of a human being in the 20th century.  One of the things that has happened to us . . . is to learn how certainty crumbles in your hand” (157).  The collapse of European communism brought in the postmodernism of the right.  “Whatever its political colour, postmodernism retains its penchant for hybridity, relativism and heterogeneity, its aesthetic hedonism, its anti-essentialism and its rejection of “Grand Narratives” (of redemption)” (163).  In Muslim countries, in the south Asia, in Latin America, there are diverse appropriations and rejections of postmodernism.  Karlheinz Stockhausen is a German “late modernist” composer.  His works are notoriously mega-Wagnerian in ambition.  For instance, a string quartet premiered in 1995 requires a helicopter for each player.  They fly to patterns laid out in the score and broadcast back to the ground audience.  Stockhausen offensively hailed September 11th as a sublime performance: Those people rehearse fanatically for one concert and then die.  That’s the greatest work of art possible in the cosmos.  I couldn’t do that” (184).  “Relativism and fundamentalism might indeed be the complicit twins of postmodernity” (189).


Comparative Aesthetics of Nature and the Arts


Here are some links relating to the Medici chapel, mentioned in class April 13. 

Here are photos of the sculptures: http://www.ktb.net/~bewier/Medici-wp.html

Here's a great essay: http://www.crucifixion.com/visual/theology/johndixon/transfig.htm

Two more, in case you want them: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-16621/Michelangelo