Ryerson Computer Science PHL504: Philosophy of Art

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Plato - take a hike poets


Born in Athens which was the most powerful society in the world at the time. His family was powerful as well, and he was expected to go into politics. The influence of Socrates changed his career plans, and went into philosophy instead.

Relationship with Socrates

Plato was a student of Socrates. Socrates was famous for his "socratic method" of posing pointed questions on the nature of individuals' values. Socrates didn't form formal theories though, and did not write down his ideas. Plato formalized and wrote extensively, especially in the form of "dialogs", typically involving Socrates. His most famous dialog was The Republic

Theory of the Forms

  1. Particular things consist of matter and form
    matter is the physical stuff - the materials you see, but without context
    form is the arrangement of the matter, and possibly the intention
  2. Matter is particular, form is universal
  3. Forms correspond to definitions
    there is a correspondence between form and function
  4. We use reason to know the forms
    Senses are not enough to be able to know the form. Supersensible. Form is like the "essence" (ala Kant)
  5. The Forms exist somewhere other than the physical world
    Forms cannot be destroyed (or created), all exist already (some say, in "plato's heaven")
  6. The Forms are more real than the physical world

Theory of the Soul

  • Appetite
    • desires
    • self-oriented (maybe biological in my viewpoint)
    • living in the moment ("have another drink")
  • Reason
    • rational analysis
    • selfless, long-term thoughts, thinks about consequences and the big (society-oriented)
  • Thumos
    • spirited, passionate, pride, honor, self-sacrifice
    • striving toward a goal
    • sometimes an "angry response"

Charioteer Analogy: a charioteer drives two horses - a black one and a white one. The black one is unruly, does whatever it wants. That one represents pure "Appetite". The white one stays the course, basically too much - it would run forward unswervingly until it dies. That represents pure "Thumos". The drive represents "Reason" which is needed to pull everything together. The three of them comprise the "soul".

Art in Acient Greece

By our modern standard, ancient Greece was rife with beautiful art of many forms (paintings, sculptures, architecture, music, etc). The Greeks did not separate these arts (arts by our definition) from other "techne" or crafts such as wood-working, politics, horsemanship.

Greek Poetry

  • EPIC
    • large-scale, usually involves an adventure with a hero
    • not meant to be acted out in a play, but rather recited or sung
    • Eg, Illiad, The Odyssey
    • smaller scale, usually involves a protagonist who "falls from grace"
    • usually fate is sealed from the beginning so the audience knows what will happen, but gets to watch as the protagonist learns and deals with their fate
    • usually performed as a play, on-stage

The Greeks held poetry in very high esteem - a gift from the Gods. Homer was recited in public, every educated Greek knew Homer

Plato on Poetry

Plato wanted poetry and poets excluded from his 'ideal society' altogether for these reasons:

  1. Excites the appetites. Assumes that people may be influenced to act out in 'bad ways' after seeing others act that way
  2. False beliefs. Poetry provides false knowledge which could be taken as truthes.
  3. Immitates is far from reality. In Plato's Theory of Forms, the Form (1) is reality, a realization (2) is not really real, but it allows us to see the Form. Then, poetry (3) is immitation of the realization, so it is far from reality

Aristotle - loves that catharsis


  • provided another viewpoint from Plato's - viewing tragedy offers catharsis
  • popular interpretation of Aristotle's catharsis:
    • purging of emotions, almost in a medical sense. clearing them from the body (or soul)
    • training our emotions; improves them, clarifies them

On tragedy

  • must concern certain types of people (serious)
  • needs to be complete, conclusive
  • cannot be too long (the audience can only absorb so much)
  • generalizes human nature, not about particular individuals

Tolstoy - its all shite, even mine (expression theory)

Tolstoy felt that Europe was becoming spiritually corrupt, largely as a result of the state of "art" (bad art). The popular belief at the time was that art was all about simple beauty. Though Tolstoy argued that this was wrong, and analogous to only placing value on food that tastes good. He defined art as the transmission of emotion from the artist to the viewer

Tolstoy defined the quality of art as having two characteristics:

  1. Infectiousness
    • individuality (specific and focused)
    • clearness of expression
    • sincerity
    • simplicity of the feeling
  2. Quality of Emotion
    • "art" - any old emotion (stories, lullabies, jokes)
    • "Art" - paintings, sculptures, poetry, etc.
      • from the "religous" consciousness
      • communicates emotions about humans at their highest level of being

Criticisms of Tolstoy

  • too broad
    • love letters, wedding toasts, political protests
    • the above items are all targeted at specific groups or individuals
  • too narrow
    • private art (never seen, so the emotion is never received)
    • insincere art (artist didn't really have the emotion it was trying to transmit)
    • no emotion at all

RG Collingwood - lots of words, not much to say

Parallels with Tolstoy:

  • art proper (art)
  • pseudo-art (counterfeit art)

Pseudo Art, aka a "craft" (aka techne)

  • very distinguishable: means vs end, plan vs execution, raw mat' vs finished product, form vs matter'
  • crafts can form a hierarchy: the end result of one craft can feed into another craft as a means to its end

Clive Bell - there's a new emotion, but only I can feel it...

The "aesthetic hypothesis"

In 1912 wrote a book in which he defended art that does not merely immitate appearances. Art of Cezanne (the moutain) was criticized for not being realistic enough. But Bell argued that true art is not about realistic looking paintings, but anything that produces an "aesthetic" emotion.

  • art should produce an aesthetic emotion
  • art that has "significant form" can produce aesthetic emotion
  • aesthetic emotion is different from beauty (which is everywhere), should not be an "everyday" sort of feeling
  • art that depicts a story (the train station) is not real art; does not product the A.E. (but there are some exceptions)
  • photo-realistic paintings generally do not produce the A.E. (realism distracts you from the aesthetic emotion)

What is the value of aesthetic emotion?

  • thrilling, ecstacy, infinitely sublime state of mind, immense ethical value, a means to be good

Bell vs Plato

  • Plato: art is 3 steps removed from reality
  • Bell: art moves us toward the "universal and eternal"

Criticisms of Bell

  • is there really an aesthetic emotion?
  • what is the difference between aesthetic emotion and a "regular thrill"? Bell doesn't really explain this
  • Bell's theory includes basically anything that's aethetically pleasing. Leaves it open to too many types of things. Eg, wristwatches, blackboards, etc

Beardsley - organizing C. Bell's thoughts for him

Beardsley's theory of art is in the same vain, but extends Clive Bell's theory. Beardsley describes an "aesthetic experience" (as opposed to aesthetic emotion). Theory includes these three criteria:

  1. Focused on a complex perceptual object
    • Should have a variety of parts with interesting interrelation. Heterogeneous (aka, the blue sky is not good enough)
    • Should be perceived outside ourselves. Our inner thoughts just distract us from the experience, so active participation usually means it is not an art
  2. Intense
    • Stands out. Not an every-day sort of experience
    • Absorbing
  3. Unified
    • Coherent (vs everyday experiences that are just a mixture of random events)
    • Uninterrupted
    • Complete

Beardsley's summarizing definition of art:

Something produced with the intention that it have the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest

  • by 'intention', there must exist both the desire and the belief

elaborate on: excludes avant-garde pieces from his definition of art

Weitz - an open kind of guy (but not to essentialism)

Thinks its a waste of time to look for necessary and sufficient conditions for philosophies like art, because they are open concepts

Closed Concepts

  • A thing that has necessary features that exist in every instance
  • All features are necessary and jointly sufficient
  • essence
  1. any instance can be easily classified
  2. Understanding

Open Concepts (anti-essentialist) (What)

No necessary conditions. Sometimes described as the "no theory" theory of art

Game Example

Wittgenstein gives the example of a "game". What are the definitions? Amusing? Competative? Decision-making? Not necessarily. We cannot pin down any concrete necessary conditions or properties

Arguments for open-concept theory (Why)

  1. all theories of art (so far) have failed
    • long list of brilliant thinkers who have failed
  2. art is creative, so it has to be an open concept
    • all about coming up with different ways to see the world, etc
    • closing it off would suffocate art itself
  3. we don't need an essence to understand or use the concept of art.
    • Weitz response: recognize family resemblance
    • family resemblances could be overlapping characteristics, but not always "necessary" characteristics
    • qualities partially overlapping, like a "twisted rope" according to Wittgenstein
    • transitivity!
    • There is always still a decision to be made though - are the qualities actually the same? etc.

Point #2, more formally:

  1. Art is open to radical change, innovation & novelty.
  2. If art has an essence, then it is not open to radical change, innovation, etc.
  3. Therefore, art must not have an essence

Weitz' "Honorific/Evaluative" definition

Philosopher's discussions still have value because they essentially praise the attributes of the art

Maurice Mandelbaum's refutation of Weitz' open concept stance

Mandelbaum takes exception to Weitz' "creativity" point and also his "family resemblance" point.

Mandelbaum's Argument against Weitz' Creativity Point

Within Weitz' argument about creativity, and art not being open to radical change if it indeed has an essence, Mandelbaum

Mandelbaum's Argument against Weitz' Family Resemblances Point

Given the example of a game; one cannot tell the difference, merely by resemblance, between card game and, say, fortune telling. Deeper inspection is required. Same with looking at photos of similar looking people. Cannot assume that there is a family resemblance simply because two people share common features. For them to be family, they need a genetic connection.

George Dickie - Institutional Theory

Had more to say about the failures of the open concept, particularly on the "family resemblances". Family resemblances argument is recursive. Mona Lisa -> Medieval -> other, etc. There is no base case. Logically flawed

Institutional Theory v1.0

X is art if:

  1. X is an artifact
  2. a set of aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candiate for appreciation by someone acting on behalf of the Artworld
    • relational aspects
      • conferred upon it
      • status of *candidate* for appreciation (doesn't mean that it must be enjoyed)
      • acting on behalf of the artworld
      • set of aspects

Procedural & Functional

Conferring status. This procedure makes it art. Works like the Fountain are particularly important to point us to the true theory of art. A very stripped down artwork consisting only of the status conferral.

Criticisms: distinctions between the "artworld" and other official institutions

  • no ranks, hierarchy, policy in the artworld
  • what do we really need to confer status on an art piece
  • what constraints are there on what should receive the status? Apparently you can confer it to a urinal

Institutional Theory v2.0

We don't need credentials for these general social practices. Just need to get involved. Less formal social network. A thing becomes a work of art in the same way a thing becomes a garden. Note: in this theory, "status conferral" has been dropped.


  1. An artwork is an artifact created for presentation to an artworld public
  2. A public is a set of persons who are prepared, in some degree, to understand an object presented to them
  3. The Artworld is the totality of all Artworld systems (theatre, dance, music, etc)
  4. An Artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an Artworld public.
  5. An Artist is someone who participates with understanding of producing a work of art.

Benefits of this theory:

  • exclusive (artifact)
  • wide - doesn't have to have aesthetics, doesn't need this or that
  • according to Dickie, the Fountain (urinal) piece is still covered by the theory because he says that an artifact can be created by changing some material or using existing material


Too broad

  1. Could include Movie Posters or Programs/Playbills at shows (because they are created for "presentation to an art audience")
    • Dickie argues that these are secondary pieces. They are not necessary criteria for the primary thing (the movie for ex) to exist. But the poster couldn't exist without the movie. So, tweak the definition: X is art if it is a *primary* artifact
  2. Michaelangelo's toilet. If Michaelangelo had made toilet art in the 16th century.
    • Dickie says, pieces are made for "art world systems" that have, at any given time, a set of rules and ways of doing things.
    • art-world systems are not static, they evolve over time. Renasance period would not have been prepared for a "toilet" piece as we were in the early 20th century
  3. Mountain -- just setting a chair upsidedown on a table. Can anyone make art out of nothing. (unresolved)

Too narrow

  1. Private art.
    • Is indeed created for an artworld public, but the artist is the public
    • Even if it is not presented to an audience, it is still *for* the audience
  2. Art before the artworld. Eg, cave paintings in Lascaux France (unresolved)
    • *** Possibly a case of a thing that simply looks like art but is not. The institution does not exist ***

Other problems

  1. When was the first artworld?
    • same problem as Weitz' Open Concept theory of art with Family Resemblances. Infinite recursion
    • But the artworld systems, according to Dickie, sprung up from forms of art itself over the thousands of years. Including: Theatre, poetry, painting, dance, music, etc
  2. circular theory?
    • art works <-> presented to artworld public
    • Dickie thinks circular definitions are okay sometimes: Take for example a logical statement of premises and conclusions:
      1. All men are mortal
      2. Socrates is a man
      3. Socrates is mortal
      A premise supports a conclusion. A conclusion is supported by premises. Inflected concept. This is simply necessary -- no way to avoid all circular concepts / definitions.
  3. Institutional Theory is too uninformative (unresolved)
    • Dickie's theory can essentially apply to any concept (some thing is made for that thing's audience. Eg, cars are made for a car-buying audience, etc)
    • Circular definitions are okay for understanding what a premise and conclusion are in logic, but for art, there must be something more
  4. Institutional Theory makes "Art" a 'proper name' (unresolved)
    • descriptive names (like the butler, the president, etc) provide useful information, while proper names (like John, Fred, etc) do not carry any information about the thing that it applies to
    • all the substance has been removed from the name art
  5. Change in the Artworld is left unexplained (unresolved)
    • cameras were introduced; initially photography was considered to not be art. Then there was a shift and the Artworld accepted photography. Dickie's theory doesn't explain why.
  6. What is the value of Art? (unresolved)
    • Dickie's theory doesn't explain why we should want to have art

Finally, maybe we need to re-evaluate Dickie's theory. Perhaps he focused too much on "avant garde" stuff. He was trying to include the Fountain in his theory; all there is to the Fountain is showing the piece to the art-world public. But maybe after the Fountain, art lost its way. Recall Tolstoy's point that we should not accept everything that any bourgoise says is art. Perhaps all of avant-garde art is not art! But we won't explore this further in the course.

Arthur Danto - Philosophy drives art now

Art is not simply making stuff to show to people, but rather doing something more sophisticated and theoretical. Precisely with the avant-garde, does the nature of art present itself to us.

Danto wrote a paper about the Artworld that inspired Dickie to come up with his own Institutional Theory of Art. But their theories are quite different. Danto's theory has more substance.

Cutting edge artists fighting a battle of ontology

  • said cutting edge artists were fighting a battle to prove something
  • immitation theory was highly influential; Plato's concerns persisted. Invention of photography excaserbated these concerns. A machine could create a better copy of the real world than any artist. Artists realized that art must get past the idea of immitation.
  • So in the post-war period of 50's and 60's set about to refute Plato, in a way. Create art that is genuinely real (show the ontology) instead of immitative.


  • Blue Monochrome (1961)
    • showed that it could be art without being a copy of anything. Merely blue paint on canvas. A real thing in its own right. No need to ask, "what is the meaning of this?" because it is its own thing.
  • Large Comic Book style panels
    • different point here: not reproductions or immitations...?
  • Bed (1955)
    • a real bed, not an immitation
  • Bedroom Ensemble (1963)
  • Ten Numbers (1960)
    • the idea: numbers are all real. There are no copies of numbers.
  • The Holy Virgin Mary
    • made out of elephant dung and images of vaginas
  • Battle of San Romano
    • explores the possibilities of painting
  • Van Gogh's field
    • demonstrates what art can do

Were these ideas (examples above) successful? Yes and no:

  • Yes: showed that art is not immitation
  • No: artworks are not necessarily real things. The Bed is not actually the same as your bed at home. Its a work of art, so its something special. This is the beginning of Danto's theory...

Jeff: Danto's thing is like Plato's theory of Forms - art just has a different form than the thing that it looks like

What is the thing that art has that the physical doesn't?

Example of painting Landscape with Fall of Icarus (1555): Need to distinguish meanings of the word is:

  • Is of existence: there is beer in the fridge
  • Is of identification: is that a beer in your hand?
  • Is of predication: John is hungry

When we say, "that blob of paint is icarus", is doesn't fit with any of the above definitions. Rather, somehow the blob of paint represents Icarus. This is the is of artistic representation.

Danto's theory summarized:

X is artwork, if and only if:

  1. Some part of X is distinguishable by the subject of a sentence by employing the "is" of artistic identification
  2. X hereby expresses a view (offers a theory) about the nature of art

Danto's view excludes the ancient cave paintings from art, since they wouldn't be offered any theory on the nature of art. Danto essentially says that art is now driven by philosophy about art

Blue Monochrome failed in a sense because it wasn't really a real thing. It could still be interpreted -- because it poses questions about the nature of art. So it failed to be a real thing, but succeeded in being real art. (?)

Danto's End of Art

Avant Garde - modern and timely art. Something that is appropriate for our time. There is no going back to some previous form of art. But, with avant garde art, this is the end of art. Danto claims that art can no longer progress. Now we will only have change, and no more progress. Similar to what Hegel said about the end of history - when Napoleon defeated the prussians. From that point on, there can be change, but not progress since we have reached the political "ideal".

For the sake of argument, how can art continue to improve...

Suppose we consider the Imitation Theory

Could art continue to improve trying to imitate reality? Around the mid-15th century, we started to see the linear perception in paintings being very convincing. If we can reach the point of the holodeck on star trek TNG, we will have perfected imitation

Suppose we consider the Expression Theory

Concept of progress doesn't really apply here. Though we may be expressing different feelings, our ability to express them doesn't change.

Theory Theory

But Danto feels that art is about neither imitation nor expression. But about philosophical theory.

Gloss of Danto's Argument

  1. The goal of art is producing theories about the nature of art
  2. The best possible technique for producing theories about the nature of Art is to just think about the nature of Art (ie, do philosophy).
  3. In the 20th century, Artists began to just think about the nature of Art
  4. So, (since we've found the ideal mode) no further progress is possible in Art (ie, art is over).

Danto feels that the avant garde was necessary for our time. But at the same time, a little sad because it represents the end of progress of art

Danto's post-End of Art Predictions

  1. Artworld will wither away, die out
    • no purpose for "serious" art galleries anymore
    • no further art history (no works that represent progress)
  2. Or: Art will persist, without progressing
    • return to Greek-style; no "Art" with capital A.