Aesthetics - Topics

What's Philosophy of the Arts?

How to think about the arts as a philosopher
David Clowney
January, 2007

Thinking about the arts is hard and exciting work, even when you are not trying to be a philosopher of art. Just looking at or listening to an art work, and letting it soak into you, requires a very rewarding sort of concentration. Knowing what to look or listen for, understanding what is being communicated, seeing how something works (or doesn’t), seeing ways it might work better, understanding what makes the work you’re looking at unique and what its special virtues and shortcomings are, comparing it in helpful ways with other things that are like or unlike it, putting yourself in the place of the first audience for this work…all of these things present you with an exciting challenge. (Of course there is also comfortable art, the kind you are already at home with and can just relax and soak in it.)

Where in this group of responses to art does the philosophy of art come in? What makes a question about art a philosophical question? I find this an exasperatingly difficult question to answer. But what comes to mind first is the metaphor of levels. Philosophers are usually digging for fundamental assumptions, looking for the contours of world views, asking why things we take for granted are the way they are and not some other way that they could be. That means that philosophy usually starts several levels up (or down) from the surface questions.

Here is another way to come at the subject. In discussions about art, all kinds of questions come up. They range from very general ones like “Is that art?” and “Is it any good?” to much more specific ones, like “why does this piece move me so much?” or “how does this guy get away with doing slapstick comedy about the holocaust? (in the movie Life is Beautiful)” or “what creates the sense of tension and dread that I feel in the second movement of this work?”

If questions like this are going to be answered intelligently, it helps to know what sort of answers we are looking for. So we start asking questions about our initial questions. What would count as a good answer to this question, and how would we go about finding such an answer? Is it possible we are looking for answers that can’t be found, or looking for them in the wrong places? And what must the world be like if that sort of question can be answered in that way? These second-level questions (questions about the questions) are the sorts of questions that philosophers often ask.

Thinking about Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Suppose you started thinking about a piece of classical music, say, Beethoven’s famous 5th symphony. You could start by describing it. Music majors are trained to do a very good and careful job of describing music, and they have lots of tools for doing it. In the first chapter of Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, assigned for this class, you get some helpful lists of categories and terms that you can use to describe music. Art majors learn a similar vocabulary for describing paintings and other visual works of art; and the same goes for dancers, film-makers, poets and other art-makers.

So you describe Beethoven’s 5th. Describing the symphony is not philosophy. While you are describing the symphony, you might move to the evaluative level. You might call the famous opening chords of the symphony “dramatic”. You might say some things about fate hammering on the door (lots of dramatic, romantic things like this have been said, appropriately, about Beethoven’s 5th). You might also say some things about how well the symphony succeeds, and about what musical breakthroughs (if any) it represents. When you evaluate the symphony like this, you are still not doing philosophy of music; but you are beginning to do music criticism. A music critic will describe a work, interpret it, evaluate it, and compare it with other work by this composer and with similar works by other composers. The best philosophers of the arts are often good arts critics as well.

But now suppose you went one level further down. Suppose you started asking how you can tell which of several interpretations of the symphony iis the best, or whether it is possible for there to be more than one “right” interpretation, even though some interpretations are definitely wrong? And if that is the way things are, what makes it possible? What must the world be like, in order for this sort of thing to be true? Or again, suppose you ask questions about how it is that a piece like Beethoven’s 5th symphony can communicate emotion? What is it about music and about us that allows music to move us in the way the 5th symphony can do? Now you are asking about the basic conditions that make musical communication possible, and about how you tell what (if anything) the music is communicating. Now you are doing philosophy of music. Part of the answer to your question might come from physiology and from psychology (there is a lot of interesting work that has been done recently by brain scientists and psychologists about the way we learn and experience music). But the questions about musical meaning and musical interpretation, or about emotions and music, are philosophical questions, even when they are also psychology. A philosopher might also ask whether what the physiologist and the psychologist have to say is philosophically relevant, and if so, why? In other words, the philosopher will not only ask how music can communicate, but will also ask what kind of answer to this question might satisfy us, and why.

Take another example. Suppose you are looking at Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night”. (If you don’t know this painting, look it up. There’s a copy of it on my Aesthetics course lecture pages, or you can just Google it.) Suppose you think this is a very powerful painting, full of spiritual energy. You think it makes the world seem alive, both joyful and dangerous. But the person you are with tells you that he thinks the painting is overrated. The composition is unbalanced, the palate very limited, the swirling stars are overdone; the pine trees (if that’s what they are) on the left side of the painting are just a big dark blob; in general the painting is just over the top, and really it is not surprising that the man who painted it was crazy.

What is going on here? Is this just a clash of opinions? Or is there some way that people who disagree about works of art might be able to reach agreement? In other words, are the values you put on this piece just your own individual and private values? Is it possible to be right or wrong when you are evaluating (and not just describing) a painting or a piece of music? Are there other options besides those I’ve just mentioned?

When you ask questions like this, you are once again starting to do philosophy of art. You are asking about the status of aesthetic values and aesthetic judgments, what Kant called “judgments of taste”. This is one of the most basic questions in the philosophy of the arts: is there anything objective about such judgments, or are they purely matters of personal opinion?

There are many ways that a philosopher might approach a question of this sort. If you want to defend the idea that there is some sort of universality or objectivity to judgments of taste, you will have to provide a basis for that. You would have to describe a way the world is on the basis of which it makes sense to claim that such judgments can be right or wrong. We are all familiar with a way the world is that explains differences of opinion which cannot be objectively resolved. For any number of reasons, connected perhaps with my individual physiology, my upbringing and other facts about me, and of course also with universal human biology, I like certain flavors of ice-cream and not others. No one thinks that my preferences in ice cream can be right or wrong. If I made such a claim, people would laugh at me. The variability in individual taste is just too high. But not all value judgments fall into this personally relative category. Few of us would say it is a matter of mere personal opinion whether murder and torture are bad things, even though we may be aware that there have been cultures that felt very differently than we do about murder and torture. A philosopher who wants to explain moral values will try to describe a way the world is that makes sense of the seriousness we give to moral values, and the degree to which we seem to think that they are not matters of mere personal whim.

What do I mean by “a way the world is”, and how is describing such a “way” supposed to help me justify my position about value claims? Let me answer this by giving two examples. They both have to do with justifying moral values, rather than claims about the arts, but they illustrate the point I’m making. Here is one way the world might be, that would justify a person in saying that murder is really wrong, whether most people think so or not. I’ll put the description of this “way the world is” in italics. Here goes:

Way 1: The world was created by God. God created human beings, and he gave every human being a conscience. We all experience this sense of right and wrong; it is the voice of God inside us. We should do what God wants us to do, because God made us, God loves us, and God knows what is best for us. People and even cultures can get confused about what the voice of conscience is saying, but you can see by looking at cultures around the world that we are all listening to that same inner voice of conscience. Conscience tells us that murder is wrong. So murder really is wrong.

And here is another “way the world might be,” giving a different justification for moral judgments like “murder is wrong.”

Way 2: We evolved from other forms of life. We evolved into a species that has moral values. We learned to act for something other than our own immediate personal interest. We learned to sacrifice our own interests, sometimes, in order to help others; and we learned not to harm others, especially those close to us. There are always reasons why life evolves the way it does. They have to do with survival, and especially with passing on our genetic material. Moral values help us do that. We are a social species; we need to be able to cooperate, and to trust other members of our community, in order for all of us to have the best chance of staying alive and passing on our genes. Also, human children are very vulnerable for many years. More human children survive because our moral values make us care for them, even when they are someone else’s children and they are being a pain in the neck. So it turns out that our sense of right and wrong is the voice of evolution in us. We feel better if we obey that voice than if we don’t. We should obey it, because that’s what’s good for us.

It would take a lot more work to turn either “Way 1” or “Way 2” into a defensible foundation for morality. But I hope you get the idea. Someone who presents either Way 1 or Way 2 to justify claims about moral values is describing a way the world is, and then going on to show how moral values can be justified, given that the world is like that. Such a person is doing philosophy about moral values.

Now what about values in the arts? What about judgments like those I just mentioned, about the Beethoven symphony or the Van Gogh painting? Can you defend a view about these judgments? What would the world have to be like for those judgments to be true or false? What would it have to be like for them to be mere matters of personal opinion? Why do you think your answer is correct? If someone were going to challenge your answer, what would they say? And how would you reply? When you ask and answer questions like this, you are doing philosophy of the arts.


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