Intro to Philosophy

Aesthetics: the Philosophy of the Arts

Professor David Clowney Rowan University

Course lecture pages
Course Guides
Reading Guides
Writing Guides
Topic Questions
Philosophers, artists and critics on art
Arts on line
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Writing Guides

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:

Art Criticism is best understood as a way of showing. You should help us see what we might otherwise miss (or sometimes, help us avoid what we wouldn't want to waste our time on). So criticism, in this context, does not mean attack. You may or may not have anything negative to say in your review. Your goal is to describe and evaluate the work in a way that will be helpful to your readers.

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!

I. Description/Interpretation:

  • 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 you are commenting on well enough that your reader can understand the rest of what you say, and will be able to 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. Indicate how it compares with other work in this category. Also indicate what other connections the work makes. 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!
  • If the work is puzzling or obscure in some way, you may wish to give an interpretation of it, or of some part of it. There will often be far more interpretation to be done than you can or should attempt in a short piece of criticism. However, if the interpretation of the work is difficult or controversial or intriguing in any way, you should mention this in your review.

II. Evaluation:

  • Comment briefly on the strengths and weaknesses of the work.
  • Indicate what standards of evaluation you are using, and why you think they apply.
  • Make your evaluations as specific as your descriptions, and connect them to your descriptions. NEVER just say "This is a good movie" or "This is a bad painting." Use much more specific language. You might say that a Jackson Pollack drip painting has energy and a thickness you can almost feel. You might say that listening to a Bach fugue is like watching a cathedral being built from start to finish. In each case you would be drawing attention to specific features of the work (you would need to describe these; in the second case it would be the structure of the fugue, and the way that that structure develops). And you would be saying that because the work has those features, it succeeds in some way.

III. Aesthetic Issues: (Optional for criticism in general; required for this class!)

  • Discuss any aesthetic issues that the work raises for you. Use the list of questions in aesthetics as a jumping-off point; but you are not limited to these questions. Try not to make an arbitrary leap to one of these questions just to fulfil the assignment. Instead, try to move naturally from specific criticism of the work to more general aesthetic reflection on issues raised by the work. See "What's an aesthetic issue?" for more help with this part.

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 aesthetics (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 a 5 or 10 minute presentation to the class on your project topic. Slots are available from October 1 through December 11. 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 philosophy of the arts. Later presenters will be expected to present a class-friendly version of your finished project (of course it will answer the questions above).




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