Intro to Philosophy

Aesthetics: the Philosophy of the Arts

Professor David Clowney Rowan University

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Writing Guides
Topic Questions
Philosophers, artists and critics on art
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Course Syllabus for Philosophy 150931102 - Aesthetics WI
Fall 2015 - Rowan University
Bunce Hall 104 - Tuesday and Thursday, 2:00 3:15 pm
Professor David Clowney

Course Methods:  This is a course in the philosophy of the arts, art criticism, and aesthetic experience. The course will consist of readings, some looking and listening assignments, class discussion and presentations, visits to various exhibits, concerts, and performances, and regular writing assignments, both graded and ungraded. Graded assignments include two short essays in criticism and the preparation of a term project in aesthetics, done in stages and designed in consultation with the instructor. You will also be required to submit seven reading reports on the assigned readings, for which I will set the questions (the reading reports replace exams in this course). Ungraded assignments include five event reports, and occasional in-class writing exercises. (You still have to submit the ungraded assignments; points will be deducted if you don't. But as long as you take them seriously, you get full points for handing them in.) Your grade will be based on the quality of your critical essays (24%), the quality and regularity of your class participation (10%) and reading responses (28%), your attendance at five events, each documented by a one page response (10%), and the quality of your final project (28%). 

Course Policies: 

           You must meet all deadlines and complete all assignments. Missed deadlines may be penalized by as much as a letter grade. That goes for proposals and rough drafts as well as for final drafts and oral presentations. Papers more than a week late will not be accepted unless you have negotiated an extension in advance. The more times you are late, the less forgiving I will be. Final projects will not be accepted without prior review of a rough draft.             

           All work must be submitted electronically through Blackboard, in a form that I can read. Acceptable formats are .doc, docx, .rtf, and as a last resort, .pdf files. If you use a word processor that cannot generate one of these formats, please contact me immediately and we'll figure something out. If you are having trouble with Blackboard, please e-mail your paper to me.

           Plagiarized work will be severely penalized, and your plagiarism will be reported to the Provost's office. The minimum penalty for plagiarism on an assignment is failure of that assignment. More serious offenses will cause you to fail the course, and could result in your suspension. Rowan University has a licensing agreement with an online service to help prevent student plagiarism. As part of this course I will be using this service at my discretion to determine the originality of your work.

            I expect regular attendance, both at class sessions and at our first Friday excursion (September 4), and other such events.*   The class needs your contribution, and you need the discussions and experiences that happen when we meet.  You are allowed three absences; after that your participation grade will suffer.  Meanwhile, please make every effort to submit your work on time even if you must be absent. 

* Note: I am flexible about scheduled activities outside of normal class time, since you were not aware of them when you signed up for this class and made your schedule for the semester. But you can't just skip! If you can't make an outing, let me know (in advance, please!) and we'll make other arrangements. 

           Documented disabilities: Your academic success is important to me and to the University. If you have a documented disability that may have an impact upon your work in this class, please contact me. (In fact, please do that if there is anything you would like to discuss that might hamper your success in the course.) Students must provide documentation of their disability to the Academic Success Center in order to receive official University services and accommodations. The Academic Success Center can be reached at 856-256-4234. The Center is located on the 3rd floor of Savitz Hall. The staff is available to answer questions regarding accommodations or assist you in your pursuit of accommodations. The Center staff and I look forward to working with you to meet your learning goals.  

          Contact information: Please stay in touch!  If you can't make class or are having trouble with an assignment, e-mail me, or make an appointment and come see me. My office hours are Tuesday and Thursday, 1:00 to 2:00 pm, and I am available at other times as well. It's best to make an appointment directly with me, either face to face or by e-mail (

Class starts promptly at 2:00, and ends at 3:15.  Come on time and stay till class is over.

Online Component:  In addition to the Blackboard page, this course also has its own web page (you're on it now, of course). The course syllabus, a list of concerts, exhibits, and other events, sample critical essays, course lecture notes, reading guides, images, sounds, and as much else as I have been able to prepare, are available on line.  Assigned readings not in the text are posted on Blackboard under Course Content. Other materials are available on this website.

I will communicate with you using your Rowan e-mail account. It is your responsibility to check your Rowan e-mail regularly, whether or not it is the account you normally use. If you like, you can set it up to forward your mail to the account you do use.

We will be using Blackboard as an integral part of the course. Your Rowan username and password will give you access to MyBlackboard, and from there you will have access to this class. Assignments and (some) handouts will be posted there. In addition to handing in your assignments through the Assignments tool, you will use the Blackboard Discussion tool to discuss certain of your assignments with each other and help each other to improve them before handing your rough drafts to me. I'll give further instructions for this in class.

Course Structure:  The course will develop along several axes simultaneously.  We will pay attention to several arts, namely painting and sculpture (about four weeks); music (also four weeks); and a mixture of theater and dance, film and television, and fiction and poetry during the remaining weeks of the semester. We'll also pay brief attention to the aesthetics of nature. We will discuss several issues in aesthetics, most of which are connected with more than one art. And we will trace the history of discussion of these issues, by reading work by ancient, modern, and contemporary philosophers, critics and artists. We will view, read, or listen to particular works (including student works), and we will discuss issues in philosophical aesthetics raised by the works or the media they represent.  For some of the questions that will come up, see the list of questions at the end of this syllabus. 

Live art experiences. We will visit some Philadelphia galleries, and may go to some concerts or other arts events.  We will also have an in-class concert, a visit to the dance studio, and some guests.

Course Texts:

S.D. Ross, Art and Its Significance (NY: SUNY Press, 1994); an anthology of readings by philosophers and artists.

Honore de Balzac, "The Unknown Masterpiece" and "Gambara", Introduction by Arthur Danto. (NY, 2001, New York Review of Books Classics). We will read the first of these two novellas, "The Unknown Masterpiece", by this great nineteenth century novelist, and the introduction to it by philosopher of art and art critic for The Nation magazine Arthur Danto.

Carl Wilson, Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (NY: Continuum, 2007). Start reading this book right away (it's about Celine Dion, popular culture, and taste), and keep reading it in small doses so that you have completed it by November 16, when we will discuss it in class.

David Clowney: Image and sound selections and accompanying narrative for the lectures on visual art and music, also some handouts on Blackboard.

Various authors: some photocopied essays, available on Blackboard. Keep checking the syllabus for when these reading assignments are due.

Description of Graded Assignments:

- Two critical essays, each on some work of art that interests you. Each of these will be submitted as a rough draft. You will receive comments from a classmate, and also from me. To get the two points on your rough draft, you must identify the classmate to whom you provided comments. I will return comments to you, you will revise and submit a final draft.

- One final project: see description below. There are many ways to fulfil this assignment; see the website for a longer description and some examples. I have provided some standard topics; you may also suggest your own. I, and the rest of the class, will help you define your project in stages. This means that I must see your proposal and comment on your rough draft before I will accept your final draft.

- A presentation related to your final project. 5-10 minutes, one or two per day beginning October 1, sign up.

- Seven reading reports, each of which is worth a maximum of 4 points. These are graded, and I expect them to be turned in on time; see above. You may choose to discard one grade, or to keep all seven and reduce the percentage value of one of your other assignments.

Ungraded Assignments:

- Five event reports, worth two points each.

- Rough drafts of your other assignments, also worth 2 points each, and a proposal for your final project, worth 1 point.

A word to the wise: 17 out of the 100 points in this course come from ungraded assignments: event reports, rough drafts and proposals. You get one or two points for doing each of these, and lose points for not doing them, regardless of their quality. If you blow off the ungraded assignments, your highest possible grade is a B-, no matter how well you do on your graded assignments.

Reading, Viewing, and Listening Assignments will be made week by week.  Other assignments will be due periodically. See Week by Week below for a list of these asssignments with their due dates. They will also be posted on Blackboard. You are responsible to know what they are, and to keep up with them, whether or not I announce them in class. Please note that the class schedule is likely to change. Unless I tell you otherwise, just keep submitting your assignments on schedule, following Blackboard. For September 3, familiarize yourself with the course web-page.  Read the introduction to Larry Shiner's The Invention of Art, and do the viewing assignment on African Art listed in the syllabus. Write about a page of notes summarizing these readings and exhibitions, and come to class prepared to discuss. It's ok if your response pays more attention to one of these items than to the others, but please show me that you have read or looked at all of them.

Our topic for the introductory sessions (9/1 & 9/3) is the distinction between "fine art" and other arts (craft, popular art, commercial art and design, entertainment, etc.). This distinction and the baggage that comes with it is fundamental to the modern idea of art. Rather than argue about whether to accept it, we will look at its historical origin and its social function. We will also consider what common arts-related practices and propensities are universal in all human cultures. Beginning September 8, we will discuss the topics of art as representation, and art and morality.

My office is on the third floor of Bunce Hall, in the Philosophy and Religion Department's part of the building (Bunce 315).  My office hours are Tuesday and Thursday, 1:00 til 2:00 pm.  I am available at other times also if necessary, and if we can't get together on campus we can meet using Skype.  To be sure we connect, please make an appointment. My e-mail is Feel free to e-mail me with questions or to tell me anything I should know about.

Deadlines for Written Assignments:

First critical essay               9/15 (rough draft), 9/22 (final draft)
             Project proposal                  10/1
             Second critical essay           10/20, 10/27
             Project rough draft                11/17
             Project presentations           1 or 2 per class, beginning 10/1 - please sign up
             Project final draft                  12/10
             Reading reports: 9/10, 9/24, 10/18, 10/29, 11/10, 11/19, 12/8
             Event reports: All are due 12/10, but you don't have to wait until then to hand them in!

Preparing for class:  Each class session, we will discuss a topic for which you will prepare by doing an assigned set of readings. You will also review the course lecture pages for the day, reading the narrative that goes with the images or sounds, and doing some other looking and listening.  Plese look for additional examples from various arts that will illustrate the topic, or confirm or refute or expand one of the claims made by an author, or otherwise contribute to the semester's conversation about philosophy and the arts. I will ask you to share these contributions with the class, making such contributions will contribute to your participation grade. Please take the looking and listening part of preparation as seriously as you take the reading part, and vice versa. They are all an essential basis for class discussion. To keep you on your toes and aid your understanding, you will prepare seven reading responses, in which you will answer questions about the reading, viewing and listening assignments. The questions are posted on Blackboard, and your responses will be graded on a scale from 0 to 4.The due dates are listed in the syllabus as well as posted on Blackboard. Doing these reports will test your understanding of the readings; they should also aid your understanding. You may use other sources to help your understanding, but the result must be your own, and you must cite your sources correctly.

Getting the most out of the readings: You will find some of the readings difficult to understand. That's because this is primarily a course in the philosophy of art and art criticism. You may be unfamiliar with some of the art that we talk about, let alone having good ways to evaluate it; and philosophical writing and thinking even about familiar subjects is hard intellectual work.  Sometimes philosophers make it harder than it needs to be.  But even the best and clearest writers will still give your brain a workout. Critical discussion about the nature and meaning of the arts, such as that contained in the papers I have assigned, is an essential part of the cultural context within which the arts have their meaning.  I have found the workout worth it; I hope you will too! I will take time in class to clear up the murky parts (but this will not help if you have not first struggled to understand them for yourself). Reading guides for most of the readings (usually power points) are posted in the "Reading Guides" folder on the course website. I have also created entries about some of the authors on the course web-site; find links to these on the "Philosophers, critics and artists on art" page.  Make things easy on yourself; use these aids before tackling the readings. I will not usually assign more than 50 pages a week; often I will assign much less than this amount. And I will not assign more than one hour's worth of listening or viewing assignments for any one class.   

Writing Criticism:

The peer review sheet (on Blackboard, under Course Content) is a good quick outline of what I expect in your critical essays. Here are a few more helpful hints:

There are many ways to write criticism well, depending on the audience, the purpose of the criticism, and the vision and goals of the critic.  By including the following elements you can usually produce a good and readable piece of criticism, and unless you have specific permission to do something different I expect to find all of them in your essay.  After that, it's practice, familiarity and insight!

  • Give specific details about where or in what venue the work was seen or heard or performed, and say how readers can have access to it.

  • Describe the work well enough that your reader can understand the rest of what you say, and can tell whether he or she is interested in hearing/seeing more. 

  • Describe any unique features of the work.  Say what general categories the work fits into, if it seems to you to fit any such categories, and indicate how it compares with other work in this category.  Tell us anything else important about where the work comes from, who made it, and its place in the world.

  • Tell us what draws you to the work, or turns you off. Do this by describing the aspects of the work that make you feel that way, rather than by telling us how you feel!

  • Comment briefly on the strengths and weaknesses of the work, if you have not already done so.

  • Discuss any aesthetic issues that the work raises for you.

Preparing your project: Your final project will be the equivalent of a ten page (or longer) term paper. It will have a written component, which may or may not be that long, depending on its other components. Your project may be an extended essay in criticism, in which you develop some point in philosophical aesthetics.  It may be a piece of straight philosophical aesthetics, like some of the readings. It may be the presentation of a piece or a body of your own work, with comments on how that work relates to themes we have read about and discussed in class. If you want to do this, be sure to talk to me first. Please note that I will not be grading your project as art, but rather as philosophy of art. Other options are also allowable; check them with me. You must present your project to the class, either in one of its planning stages or as a finished product.    Make sure you do the rough draft; this is the only way that you will be sure we are on the same wavelength about the expectations you must meet.  The following list of topic questions should give you some ideas.  Check the web-site for a list of specific projects you might do, plus some examples of successful past projects.

Presenting your project: As part of your project, you will make about a 10 minute presentation to the class on your project topic. Slots are available from October 1 through December 10 (we may also use the scheduled exam period if we need it). Early presenters will be expected to tell us what you are working on, why it interests you, what questions you are trying to answer, where and how you will look for the answers, and why your project is an example of philosophical aesthetics. Later presenters will be expected to present a class-friendly version of your finished project (of course it will also answer the questions above).

Topic Questions (a partial list - for the course and for your project):

  • Do criticism and theory make any contribution to art? Why not just experience the art and forget about the theory and the criticism?

  • The word 'art' originally meant 'skill', and sometimes it still does (the art of cooking, of massage, etc.) But now it has another meaning (roughly, painting, sculpture, music, dance, theater, photography and film, poetry, fiction, performance art, etc.). Does art of this kind always have to show skill?

  • Is it possible to define art, or to say what makes art different from non-art? Why do people care about this question? Would the question be easier to answer if 'art' meant 'skill'? ( A hint about "defining" something like art: When a word has a use in a language, its meaning cannot simply be 'up to you'.  Even the meaning of "delicious" is not up to you in that way, although (in the immortal words of Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street) "what you think is really delicious may be awful and yucky to me). But just repeating the dictionary definition doesn't help much, either.  What other options might you have?)

  • Should we recognize a sharp distinction between fine art, commercial art, popular art, and craftwork?  Are these distinctions made in every time and culture?  And if not, how did they develop in our culture?

  • What (if anything) do the (fine) arts have in common?

  • How do different arts (e.g., poetry and music) accomplish similar things when they work together (e.g., in a song)?

  • What are the unique possibilities and limits of particular arts? (For example, what can film do that other arts cannot? What can it not do easily, that other arts can?) How do these possibilities and limits affect the project of "translating" a work from one medium to another (e.g. from book to film, or from poem to music)? How do the differences and similarities between different arts affect a project that combines several arts? (These questions are usually most fruitful when you are considering particular examples.)

  • What is a symbol?

  • How does art mean?  How does the answer to this question differ with the different arts (e.g., painting, music, dance, poetry)? Is the dimension of meaning essential to every fine art?

  • How do the different arts express emotion (if they do)?

  • What's the status of aesthetic standards?  Do they simply express individual or cultural tastes?  Is there anything objective about them?

  • What's the nature of aesthetic properties?  (E.g., beauty, integrity, unity, mood, expressiveness, etc.)  Are they in any sense "objective"?  Or are they simply "in the eye (or ear) of the beholder"? What do they have to do with the senses?

  • How do the arts relate to: Spirituality?  Morality?  Emotions?  Economic power and class structure?  Philosophy?  Culture and cultural development?

  • What's the relationship between the arts, biology and psychology? For example, is there a biological or a universal psychological basis for our love of music and dance? For our association of certain colors with certain emotions? For what we think is beautiful or ugly in nature?

  • What's the relationship, if there is one, between appreciation of art works and appreciation of nature?

  • Can animals be artists?

  • Is there any special connection between art and gender, or between art and sex or the erotic?

  • How important is performance to art? Is there anything like performance in the non-performing arts?

Course Schedule with Assignments, Week by Week (readings listed for a date are to be completed by that date)

9/1: Introduction: Orientation, handouts, class policies and assignments, website, Discussion: some human universals. The universality of the arts.

9/3: Introduction: Fine art, folk art, craft, popular art, etc. View the images and read the narrative on the course website for the two "Introduction" pages. Do this each week, for every set of lectures that has pages devoted to it. Consider it part of the textbook. Read Shiner, The Invention of Art, Introduction (on Blackboard).  Start reading Wilson, Let's Talk about Love, read a chapter a week until we discuss the book in class. Viewing assignment: National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian) , focus on "Classical Treasures" and "The Uses of African Art." Discussion of Art and craft, commercial art, popular art, traditional art, etc. Where did we get these distinctions, and what should we make of them? 

9/4: First Friday. Tour of Philadelphia Art Galleries. Meet at 5 pm at the Larry Becker gallery, 43 North 2nd Street in Philadelphia. Galleries are open from 5 til 8 pm. See Events page on website for tour itinerary. 

9/8: Art as representation.  Read Plato, Republic (selections from book X, in Ross, pp. 32-44, also from Book VII, "The Allegory of the Cave", (on Blackboard) and a bit from Aristotle's Poetics, in Ross, pp. 70 - 74. View the images and read the narrative on the corresponding course lecture pages on the web-site.

9/10: Representation and the power of Image: Art and Morality.  Read Plato, Republic, selections from books II, III (Ross, 9-32), Ion ( Ross, 45-55); Aristotle, Poetics, (Ross 66-74). Start by reading the entries on Plato and Aristotle under Philosophers, Critics and Artists on Art on the course website.  Viewing assignment: Michelangelo (on Artchive) or Giorgio Vasari or another Renaissance artist of your choice. See the “Arts on Line” section of the course web-page to find your way to these artists on line.  And don’t forget the library; art books have much better images than your computer does! First reading report due: see Blackboard for questions to answer.

9/15: Visit to the Dance Studio: Art and Experience, embodiment, expression (awaiting confirmantion, date subject to change; stay tuned). Critical essay 1, first draft due

9/17: Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?  Read Hume, Of the Standard of Taste (it's in Ross, but use my annotated edition on the web site, linked to the entry on Hume under "Philosophers, Artists and Critics on Art"). 

9/22: From Taste to Aesthetic Judgment: The 18th century creation of fine art.  Read web-site entry on Kant, read “From Taste to the Aesthetic” in Shiner, The Invention of Art. Viewing assignment: TBA. Critical essay 1, final draft due

9/24: Taste (cont.) Read Kant, Critique of Judgment, in Ross, pp. 98-120, 130 - 138. (Warning: not for the fainthearted. Use the reading guide!) Supplementary reading: Mattick, "Art and Money", on Blackboard. Second reading report due - see Blackboard for questions to answer.

9/29: Art as Expression/Art as Experience.  Read Tolstoy, pp. 177-181 in Ross, and Nietzsche, selection from the Birth of Tragedy, in Ross, pp. 161-167. 

10/1: Art as Experience: Read Dewey, Art as Experience, in Ross, pp. 204 – 220. Viewing Assignment: Works by Munch, Schiele, Klimt, Bacon, Frankenthaler, DeKooning, Pollack (or other Expressionists and Abstract Expressionists of your choosing) Project proposal due. Student presentations

10/2: First Friday. Tour of Philadelphia Art Galleries. Meet at 5 pm at the Larry Becker gallery, 43 North 2nd Street in Philadelphia. Galleries are open from 5 til 8 pm. See Events page on website for tour itinerary. (Take this tour if you missed the one in September.)

10/6: Where do we go from here?  Western Art History: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the "End of Art." Read Hegel, "Philosophy of Fine Art", in Ross, pp. 143-161 or Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Student presentations

10/8: Where do we go from here?  Continued Read Danto, "The End of Art",  Gablik, "Has Modernism Failed?" (On Blackboard. Use the reading guides for help with these essays!) Viewing assignments: Dia website or - Spend an hour looking around and thinking about what you see. Third reading report due. Student presentations

10/13: TBA Guest lecturer from Music department

10/15: Musical basics: What is music, and why do we love it so much? Read Levitin, This is your Brain on Music, cps 1 & 2 (on Blackboard). Listening assignments (on website). Student presentations

10/20: Musical taste and Western music history: from medieval & renaissance to classic and contemporary. The invention of fine art (or “absolute”) music. How flexible is musical taste? Listening Assignments (on web site). Second critical essay: rough draft due. Student presentations

10/22: Performance and improvisation: the case of jazz. Live jazz concert with question and answer. Details TBA.

10/27: Musical expression and musical meaning. Does music mean anything?  And if so, how?  Readings: Langer, "Feeling and Form", pp. 221-237 in Ross. Critical essay 2: final draft due. Student presentations.

10/29: Musical Expression and musical meaning (cont.) Stravinsky entry on web-site; Jenefer Robinson, "The Expression and Arousal of Emotion in Music" (class handout). Listening assignments: Debussy, La Mer or Stravinsky, Rite of Spring; Bach Toccata and Fugue in C major. Fourth reading report due. Student presentations.

11/3: Election day: no class.

11/5: Commercialism and the arts: the case of popular music.  Reading Assignment: Adorno, “On the Fetish-character in Music and the Regression of Listening”, in Ross, 539-548. Read the reading guide first! Student presentations.

11/10: Popular music (cont.)  Discussion of Wilson, Let's Talk about Love, with examples provided by the class. Supplementary  Reading Assignment: "Art and Money" by Paul Mattick (on Blackboard). Listening Assignment - find examples to illustrate your thoughts about Wilson! Fifth reading report due. Student presentations.

11/12: No class (I'll be out of town).

11/17: Literature and theories of interpretation, part I.  Reading assignments: Balzac short story "The Unknown Masterpiece", & Danto introduction. Project rough draft due. Student presentations

11/19: Literature and theories of interpretation, part II.  Reading assignments: Hirsch, "Validity in Interpretation", in Ross, pp. 331-349, Gadamer, selection from Truth and Method, in Ross, pp. 349-383 Sixth reading report due. Student presentations

11/22: Philosophy and poetry. The art of poetry.  Project rough draft due. Student presentations

11/27: No class. Thanksgiving holiday.

12/1: Poetry Day Readings and discussion.  Bring your favorites! Student presentations

12/4: Environmental Aesthetics & environmental art: Reading assignment TBA. Viewing assignment: Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides. Student presentations.

12/8: Philosophy at the movies: discussion of the art of film.  Reading assignment: Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction" Viewing assignment: The Age of Innocence (film by Martin Scorsese). Seventh reading report due.

12/10: Final Project presentations.

12/?? Final Project presentations (cont.) Project final draft due.



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