Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

I haven’t forgotten

8 Nov

To anyone who has read this blog:

I apologize for the lack of activity over the past several months. It is my senior year at Swarthmore, and I have virtually no time to myself, much less time to update this blog. I have not forgotten about it though, and I miss updating it daily. For now I can no longer update it as frequently as I once did, but when I thought about all the art-related things that I have accomplished over the past six months, I realized that I have so much to tell you. Just now I composed a list of all the topics I need to post about, and some of these topics will include multiple posts. The exciting thing is that the topics cover a wide range of art historical spheres, including some of my academic written work, presentations I’ve given, book reviews, artist interviews, and exhibition and new museum reviews. Whenever I have some time, I will do my very best to update this blog with all the exciting and new things I’ve seen, written, read, heard, and presented over the past few months, and I am excited to share this on my blog, my public virtual diary.

Thank you for being patient, and thank you for reading.I hope you’ll find that the content I will add soon was worth the wait.

High art versus Low art: Should we have this distinction? What purpose does it actually serve?

29 May


Mary Cassatt. Mother and Child. Oil on canvas, 1890. Wichita Art Museum.

Film still from Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).

Book cover of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Book cover of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Beethoven, composer.

Incubus, alternative rock band.

Above I have listed a few images of artworks and artists that I have mentioned in the final paper I wrote for my Philosophy of Art seminar, in which I gave my take on the topic of high versus low art. If I asked a group of people to sort the above artists/works into the categories of high and low art, I think the categories would look pretty similar among everyone. Incubus, the movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Ayn Rand’s novel would all probably fall in the low art category, while Cassatt, Beethoven, and Dickens would all be placed in the high art category. It is natural for us to suspect that if we wanted to feel smarter for an afternoon, we are much more likely to spend that day looking at Cassatt’s artwork, listening to Beethoven, and reading Dickens than we are to have Woody Allen movie marathon, listen to Incubus, and read Ayn Rand. But why do we naturally assume that one category is like healthy brain food while the other is mental junk food, consumed only for pleasure? Why have we decided that Cassatt’s status as a painter, a woman artist, and as an Impressionist whose work we find in art museum’s is better for us than Woody Allen, or (for a more comparative example) graffiti or tattoo art? In my paper, I discuss the reasons that philosophers have given over the past several centuries to not only defend the need for a distinction between high and low art, but why high art is better for us than low art. Then I will also argue against these reasons, positing mainly that the high/low art distinction serves nothing, and that it is in fact harmful to culture and community because it preserves a sense of snobbery and elitism among those who engage in the traditionally designated high art forms over and against those who engage in traditionally low art forms.

High Art versus Low Art: A Distinction That Harms More Than It Helps


I have a low opinion of some artworks that are typically considered worthy enough to be exhibited in museums, which Richard Shusterman claims, in his analysis of the history of how we regard entertainment and pleasure, “have replaced churches as the place where one visits on the weekend for cultural edification.”[1] For example, I find Mary Cassatt to have generally produced terrible artwork, in the sense that she accomplished nothing that other impressionists she admired, such as Monet and Degas, had not already done, and furthermore, numerous other artists with similar styles and motivations did what she did so much better. I personally find the art of the filmmaker Woody Allen, whose film Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) stands out as an especially excellent example of Allen’s gift, to be infinitely more unique, well-crafted, and thought-provoking than anything Cassatt ever created. I would also say that I have always regarded Ayn Rand novels much more highly than anything by Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, although it is far rarer to find an institution dedicated to the study of literature that would take Rand equally as seriously as Dickens or Shakespeare, let alone more seriously. Am I wrong in having this opinion? Should I take Cassatt, Dickens and Shakespeare more seriously and with deeper appreciation than I do Allen and Rand?

It is no secret, whether in everyday life or in the study of philosophy, that there are notions of “high” versus “low” art, or “fine art” versus “popular art” or popular culture. Cassatt, Dickens and Shakespeare would certainly be placed in the high or fine art category more often than Woody Allen or Ayn Rand would. It means something to us whether we call something a work of high or fine art rather than low or popular art. High usually refers to what John A. Fisher calls “paradigms of art: Hamlet, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Beethoven’s Eroica, Swan Lake, the paintings of Cézanne—indeed, museum paintings generally, classical music generally, poetry generally and so forth.”[2] Fisher suggests that a work is called high art depending on whether its form is traditionally or historically considered to be high art. When we refrain from giving a work the status of high art, Fisher reasons, “it is natural to think of the term that contrasts with high art as denoting objects that are not really art.” Because of this, the high or low art distinction “approximates” the art or non-art distinction.[3]

Why the High-Low Art Distinction Has the Consequence of Creating a Hierarchy of Forms

While Fisher claims that we should not assume that the high-low distinction is the same as distinguishing between good and bad art,[4] the fact that this distinction functions essentially like the art—non-art distinction does in fact suggest that there is a hierarchy of forms of expression, with the high forms being art and thus better for us to pursue while the low forms are not art and therefore a distraction at best, a pernicious tool at worst. In his analysis of how philosophers have treated entertainment, Shusterman points out that the ranking of art forms has been a common practice by philosophers since Plato, who at the extreme end on his views of art thought that mimetic arts provided “corruptive pleasures of entertainment through imitations of the real that pretend to truth and wisdom but lack the cognitive legitimacy of true knowledge” which the art of philosophy has.[5] In more modern times, philosophers such as Theodor Adorno gave specific requirements for what true art, or the best art, does for humanity, which in Adorno’s case would be “to provide a critical perspective on society; its goal should be liberation from the social, economic, and political realities. To that end, it should be free from commercial pressures.”[6] Here Adorno draws a sharp line between art and non-art, suggesting, in the words of Noël Carroll, that “genuine art is an attempt to free itself from the social condition in which it finds itself.”[7] The very fact that we tend to think the person who reads Pride and Prejudice at the beach is more sophisticated, more intelligent, or has better taste than the person who reads The Da Vinci Code demonstrates that there is an implicit association of high art (or even just art) with superiority and low art (or non-art) with inferiority. In short, whether we call a work art or not matters because it affects how much we value it and the way in which we appreciate it.

Why the High-Low Distinction Matters, and Why It Is Wrong

Calling something art implies that it is a product of our culture, and that it is something worth studying in order to learn something about our culture. If aliens from another planet decided they were going to visit Earth but wanted to get acquainted with its inhabitants before visiting, our Earth ambassadors would surely advise them that one of the best ways they could learn about us is by studying our art. If these aliens only studied the paintings in museums, classical music, the “great” works of literature, and other forms that are usually considered either high art or the only true forms of art, they would not only develop an incomplete picture of human life, but the picture would also be wholly inaccurate. They would need to study a much broader, less specific array of works in order to get a better understanding of humanity, including television, rock music, and other forms that are usually considered either low art or not art at all. In response to this, one might say that just because these aliens should study all of these things, it does not follow that they should all be called art. Responding to this counterargument would likely dissolve into an apologetics for why these forms are just as good as high forms. But the question to which I do not see an objective[8] answer is why they should not be called works of art, no matter how awful they might be in certain cases. Even more so, I cannot find a reason to distinguish on the basis of form or genre between high art and low art.

It is perplexing to me that we have decided that certain forms, or forms which fulfill narrowly specific aims, are the only ones which can be considered high art or art at all. When it comes to defining art, it is important to have some boundary as to where art ends and products of culture begin. It is just as important, however, not to create boundaries that are excessively limiting.

But by upholding a high-low distinction in art, we open ourselves up to defending certain works as high art and certain works as low art on bases that are ultimately of personal opinion. Ted Cohen, when asking himself why it is important for him to assert or deny that a work is an artwork, realized that “When I feel like insisting or denying that something is art it is because I wish to insist on or resist the idea that the thing is to be taken seriously, that there is kind of obligation to recognize the thing as a significant item in my life.”[9] Cohen has recognized that what he calls art matters personally to him, and his classification of works as artworks is not as objective an analysis as some philosophers present it to be in their claims to define art. This recognition Cohen has humbly observed is a realization I would invite Adorno to have about his own definition of what art should be and how it should serve us.

As stated earlier, Adorno claims that art should be critical of society and that is the main function it serves. His view clearly comes from a Marxist orientation, and yet he makes universal claims about what art should do in a world that is not necessarily inherently Marxist. What if an artist does not want to be critical of society, or not be critical in the way that Adorno is critical of society? His idea of what art should be seems to derive too much from his personal political goals, which determine what he desires out of his own experience of art. By asserting his personal preference for what the best art accomplishes, Adorno denies the multiple functions that art can serve for others, some of which could certainly be opposed to his. It seems overly exclusive and limiting that no matter how much an artist thinks seriously about what he creates, no matter how much he says through the work he produces, that work is not as valuable as another artist’s work simply because his work is not critical of society while the other’s work is, if we follow Adorno’s theory.

While in Adorno’s case his dismissal of low or popular art forms appears to be overly motivated by personal political goals, other philosophers have warned against the perils of low art with reasons that make sweeping generalizations about art forms and do not stand up to scrutiny. In his book about mass art, Carroll discusses four general arguments that philosophers of aesthetics have used to support not only a distinction between fine art and mass art, but also to stigmatize mass art as a destructive force in society which decays our minds and distracts us from engaging with high art, the only kind of art that is nourishing for us. I will focus on the first two arguments Carroll discusses, namely massification and passivity, in this paper. Carroll, in his discussion of mass art, distinguishes mass art from popular art as a unique historical phenomenon created by the industrial era’s unprecedented capabilities of mass production.[10] Popular art, by contrast, is a term that is harder to define because what has been considered popular art in one century becomes fine art in another.

I will use the term low art as Carroll defines mass art because low art, in today’s world, is mass art. Broadly speaking, all of the forms generally considered to be low art can be and are reproduced and widely distributed, one of the conditions that Carroll considers necessary to classify a work as a mass artwork. The other necessary condition for something to be called a mass artwork, as Carroll argues, is that the “artwork is intentionally designed to gravitate in its structural choices (for example, its narrative forms, symbolism, intended affect, and even its content) toward those choices that promise accessibility with minimum effort, virtually on first contact, for the largest number of untutored (or relatively untutored) audiences.”[11] The idea that mass art is more accessible both logistically and intellectually is one of the characteristics theorists have used to distinguish high art from low art, and so there is no conflict with using low art the way Carroll uses mass art on the basis of this condition, either.

The massification argument, which Carroll introduces as having its origins in Dwight MacDonald’s work, “is symptomatic of a number of the recurrent biases exhibited by American cultural critics through most of the twentieth century with respect to mass art.”[12] I believe it is this bias which causes us to sneer (or feel pressured to sneer if we want to appear intellectual and sophisticated) at those who do not appreciate high art in the way we might think they should. Massification describes low art’s trait of being mass produced and meant for mass consumption. The fact that low art is easily reproducible marks its impersonal and alienating nature compared to high art’s intimate expression of a single artist’s vision. The reason that low art is so impersonal and indistinctive is because it is impurely motivated by the desire to make large profits on it, which can only be accomplished if the art is homogenous enough to be able to be consumed by the largest and most diverse amount of people possible.

This argument makes several assumptions that these qualities of low art are necessarily negative. The fact that low art can often be mass produced is a trait that, in certain ways, gives it an advantage over high art forms that cannot be easily reproduced, such as painting or sculpture. Accessibility to art is a topical political issue in the discussion of education and unequal access to educational resources. Many cities are trying harder than ever to make their high art scene as accessible as low art. Increased accessibility was one of the reasons given by the Barnes Foundation for why it should move its art collection to Center City Philadelphia despite the restriction in Albert Barnes’ will that the art could not leave the Merion building. For many people, especially those located in rural areas where the nearest art institutions are hundreds of miles away, high art’s lack of accessibility is a detriment rather than an asset. If we want more people to appreciate art and have an arts education, why would we remain in the mindset that accessibility is to be avoided? Lack of accessibility also serves to highlight socioeconomic inequality, where one’s knowledge of art and the number of museums and concert halls they can boast to have visited is directly correlated to the ability that their wealth gives them to travel easily. Similarly, a disdain for low art forms whose creation was motivated partly or solely by money also ignores the societal benefits of this trait of low art. In an economy where the job market is increasingly competitive, wouldn’t it be a good thing that the arts industry is profitable enough to contribute to job creation? And if careers in the arts can offer a way to make a living to those who are passionate about art, doesn’t that only help them to spend more of their time engaging with art and to provide opportunities for others to do so?

The second argument made against low art as identified by Carroll, which he calls passivity, is that low art makes few intellectual or emotional demands on us. Unlike high art, which requires us to have more education in order to understand and appreciate it, low art can be consumed and appreciated without any effort. It cannot be denied that high art does require education in order to be fully appreciated. As an art history major, I know that I enjoy and appreciate visual art now much more than I did before I began to study art history. I also know that it is possible I might appreciate high literature more if I took more English classes. But it is too dismissive to suggest that we do not need an education to fully appreciate low art forms. While I had always enjoyed Crimes and Misdemeanors, I appreciated it in a much deeper, more thoughtful way when I studied it alongside Kant’s Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals in a course I took on political theory. It would be much more difficult to fully appreciate the television show American Dad! if one did not understand the American political system upon which the show draws for much of its political satire. Furthermore, high and low art forms can benefit from a mutual understanding and appreciation of each other, a view that I am supporting in my choice to study Edward Hopper alongside the film American Beauty (1999) for my Swarthmore College Honors thesis. Whether an art form, high or low, makes demands on us is ultimately entirely up to us. We can decide for ourselves whether we want to study art history so that we can have a nuanced perspective on a painting, or whether we want to study Indian culture in order to more fully appreciate Bollywood films. Whether an artwork is high or low, we are the ones who determine how easy and passive our experience will be with them, not the artwork.

Many philosophers have extolled the positive effect that art can have for us, sometimes using these effects to contrast high art with low art and claim that low art does not have the same positive effects on us which high art provides. Cohen most compellingly suggested, for example[13], that art requires us to engage in metaphors of personal identification, a skill which we use in our attempts to understand and appreciate others. What is perhaps most discouraging about some philosophers’ insistence that we stay away from low art and must pay as much attention as possible to high art is that such a focus fails to be pragmatic. It will ultimately fail because it stubbornly clings to an idealistic vision of how people should act and feel.

To demonstrate this point, let us accept for a moment that Beethoven is better than Incubus, or that Milton is better than Shel Silverstein. Now imagine you have a friend who personally does not experience the benefits of a life filled with Beethoven and Milton in the ways that theorists who champion high art over low art promise we would. Instead, this friend claims that he has overall become a better, more thoughtful and insightful person because of his time spent with Incubus and Silverstein instead of Beethoven and Milton. What would we tell this friend, especially if for us we have the taste for Beethoven and Milton over Incubus and Silverstein? If we insist on upholding the distinction between high and low art and also maintain that high art is better than low art, we would have to say that this friend of ours is mistaken. He must need more education or more exposure to high art. Or he needs to approach or be taught high art in a different way that would make him realize the error of his ways. Unless we can prove that high art serves a distinct purpose that low art cannot serve, which would require us to deny our friend’s claim that low art did for him what only high art can supposedly do, there is no reason that, as Cohen puts it in his essay “Liking What’s Good: Why Should We?”, it is better to like better things.[14] But it seems awfully egotistical and presumptive to think that we know better than someone else enough to claim that we can deny their experience of art and assert that we know better than him to which art it is good for us to pay the most attention.

To support the idea that we can deny individual experiences if they do not correctly interpret art, we might turn to Kant. Kant’s theory of the beautiful posits that all humans have the cognitive faculties of imagination and understanding, and that these faculties, along with a disinterested attitude in which no preferences influence our judgment, are what help us to determine that a work of art is beautiful. Since we all determine beauty through the same process and without partiality, genuine judgments of beauty, and of art, will have intersubjective validity. This means that we will come to our judgments of beauty independently and autonomously, but we will then find that our judgments are in universal agreement with everyone who used this process.

Kant’s theory of intersubjective validity is difficult to decisively disprove, because we will never know whether we are truly making a disinterested judgment. But if we gathered one hundred people together and asked everyone to make a disinterested judgment of beauty about a particular work, what if all but one person disagreed? It is not implausible to say there will always be disagreement in the area of taste. No matter what the artwork is, there will always be at least one person on Earth that you’ll find who disagrees about whether the artwork in question is beautiful. But for that one person who disagrees with everyone, does that one person’s opinion simply not matter? Is his experience and opinion denied validity simply because he did not agree with the majority of the group? The answer to this seems to come down to how much value one puts in the collective versus the individual. And perhaps for those who hold collectivist values over individualist ones, I might never be able to convince them that it is wrong to ignore that single person’s view even when it comes in the face of ninety-nine unanimously opposing views. But if one values the individual at all, surely the idea that we can deny one person’s experience does not sit well. And for that matter, why do we think that we have the authority or the qualifications to privilege our taste over someone else’s?

How Do We Treat Art Without the High-Low Distinction?

At this point, I have defended why there should be no distinction between high and low art, but I have not explained why this distinction, even if we refuse to discard it, should not be the same as the distinction between art and non-art. It may seem as if the difference between broadening the definition of art and while allowing that some art is good and some is bad, as I am arguing we should, compared to simply calling the good things art and the bad things non-art, seems nonexistent. Because whether you believe the movies to be non-art or really bad art, you will still not take them seriously, or at least you will still not value them. The fact that you do not take them seriously is fine by itself. But it is important that you recognize that film, however negatively you may think of them, is still art[15], because to do so is to admit that you have your own biases, your perspective is uniquely your own, and that you are not the absolute authority of taste or aesthetic judgment, no matter how qualified you might think you are. By virtue of your individuality, you are subjective[16], and because you do not have all experiences and cannot know everything, you cannot claim to know truth for a fact. You cannot claim to know that truly, a movie is not a work of art, or that David Copperfield is an excellent work of art. We should all admit that our views can be nothing more than opinions and that it is unfair to judge one person to have better taste simply because of their opinions, preferences, or expertise.

Another point I think I should clarify is that there is a difference between calling an art form good or bad and calling it high or low. As I have said, I am happy with critics decrying television as foul art and praising painting as wonderful art. The reason that this is not the same as calling television low art and painting high art is because the ways that philosophy has used those distinctions in the past, for reasons which I have discussed earlier, have given the forms which fall under high or low art inherent characteristics which are inherently good or bad. But not all of the forms which have typically been considered high or low have had these characteristics, and these characteristics are not necessarily good or bad, as I have tried to demonstrate above. And even if we believed they did, we should recognize that our beliefs as such are not absolute truths about these forms, as the high-art distinction implies they are.

So with this in mind, how do we distinguish art from non-art? I would say that something is art as long as it is expressive, that the artist made it with the intention of expressing something that is true for them. How do we distinguish art from other expressive works, such as academic papers or newspaper articles? I think the difference here is that artworks cannot merely report what is observed or researched. What the work expresses has to be something beyond a single event or situation, an idea that the artist arrived at independently which could not be replicated by someone else. In the case of academic papers, articles, advertisements, or other expressive works, with enough research and expertise, someone could reasonably create on his own what the other person created on his own.

The other feature that distinguishes artworks from regular works is that artworks do not directly, plainly express what they want to express. An academic paper or article tells the reader directly what it is trying to express, whereas art forms do not. Literature creates an entire world with characters and stories to express an underlying message. Paintings use paint and through that paint create compositions, figures, and color patterns, among other elements, to give the viewer a certain message. The same can be said of television, film, dance, music, sculpture, and other forms which do not state outright what they want to express. Art uses a medium in tandem with abstract, intangible devices (such as composition, light, rhythm, dialogue, allegory, etc.) to express something through the medium and its devices, rather than simply stating, “in plain English,” what it wants to express. Certain works of art do a better job of expressing something than others, or some may do it more cleverly than others. But how well an artwork does its job does not justify determining whether it is even an artwork on that basis.


My main focus in this paper has been to fight against the hierarchical nature of the high-low art distinction. Although I have introduced my way of distinguishing between art and non-art, I realize that this is a brief introduction and would require elaboration in order to develop it into a substantive theory. Instead of extending this paper into a much longer work to accomplish that need, I will instead offer a lovely idea that Cohen presents on how we should engage with others as we engage with art.[17] If we are no longer going to spend time trying to convince others that form A is high art while form B is low art or non-art, how should we form communities of artistic engagement with different art forms? And if we are no longer going to be critical of ourselves or others concerning the character of our taste, how should we think about our taste? Cohen begins to answer these questions by imagining two circles of taste. In the center of one circle lies the Marriage of Figaro, with people of various groups who love it, such as Cohen himself, fans of opera, or fans of Mozart, situated around the circle’s center. The other circle Cohen imagines is one in which he is the center, and all the artworks he loves surround him. Cohen asks himself, what do all the people who love the Marriage of Figaro have in common? And what do all of the works that Cohen loves have in common?

Cohen’s answer is that these people and these works have nothing in common. We do not have anything in common with others who love similar things, nor do the things we love have anything in common with each other. In Cohen’s

Unabashed, romantic declaration: each work, each object of appreciation and affection is unique, and equally unique are those of us who are the appreciators, and, in addition, those bonds that link us to our loves may also be unique, or nearly. It is critical to appreciate this uniqueness, and the way to do this is to do away with, one by one, all the temptations to think we are not unique, that we are just like one another. In doing this, we have a chance to discover two things we absolutely need to know, namely just how much we are indeed like one another, and how much we are not.[18]

Instead of focusing on how to be better than other people by liking better art than others, an aim which the high-low distinction pressures us towards, I think we might spend our time more fruitfully if we allow ourselves to be fascinated and perplexed by the way that life stories shape one person’s love of Pollock and another person’s love of the band My Morning Jacket. And it is when we enter dialogues of taste and critique with curiosity and openness rather than a competitive attitude tinged with a sense of superiority that we will have the hope for a much broader, and more vibrant aesthetic community of engagement.

[1] Richard Shusterman, “Entertainment: A Question for Aesthetics,” British Journal of Aesthetics 43, no. 3 (2003): 302.

[2] John A. Fisher, “High Art Versus Low Art,” in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, eds. Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (New York: Routledge, 2005), 527.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 528.

[5] Shusterman, 291.

[6] Fisher, 533.

[7] Noël Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 72.

[8] By objective as I use the word here I mean without being ultimately subjected to personal desires or preferences.

[9] Ted Cohen, “High and Low Thinking about High and Low Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51, no. 2 (1993): 154.

[10] Carroll, 185.

[11] Ibid., 196.

[12] Ibid., 16.

[13] That my description of Cohen’s idea lies adjacent to my observation that philosophers have contrasted high art with low art based on its uniquely positive effects is not meant to imply that Cohen participates in that line of thought. Cohen, whose view of high versus low art Fisher describes as “pluralistic hierarchicalism” (531), believed in the high versus low art distinction, but did not believe that either group was superior to the other.

[14] Cohen, “Liking What’s Good: Why Should We?” in Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture, eds. William Irwin and Jorge J.E. Gracia (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 118.

[15] But of course you are entitled to think that film is categorically terrible art.

[16] By subjective I mean that you are inextricably tied to your particular partialities as determined by your life experiences. I do not believe as Kant does that we can make truly disinterested, impartial judgments.

[17] Cohen, in Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture, 126-129.

[18] Ibid., 128.

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. A Philosophy of Mass Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Cohen, Ted. “High and Low Thinking about High and Low Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51, no. 2 (1993): 151-156.

—. “Liking What’s Good: Why Should We?” in Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop

       Culture, edited by William Irwin and Jorge J. E. Gracia, 117-130. New York: Rowman &

Littlefield, 2007.

Fisher, John A. “High Art Versus Low Art,” in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited  by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes, 527-540. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Shusterman, Richard. “Entertainment: A Question for Aesthetics.” British Journal of Aesthetics 43, no. 3 (2003): 289-307.

Ted Cohen’s “Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor”

28 Apr

Film Still from American Beauty (1999). Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Alan Ball. Cinematography by Conrad L. Hall.

Edward Hopper. Cape Cod Morning, 1950. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In the case of both American Beauty and Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Morning, the artists skillfully use the materials of their chosen media to create characters that are powerful enough to make us, as viewers, emotionally respond to them and/or identify with them. The ability that we have to metaphorically identify with Janie in American Beauty or the woman staring out so intently in Cape Cod Morning, what Ted Cohen calls “the talent for metaphor,” is the same capability we employ when we attempt to understand and appreciate others. It is the specific ways in which these artists portray these women which make us care about these women enough to ask questions about them, such as: what are they staring at? What is on their minds? Are they similar at all? There are plenty of other questions that we are compelled to ask about them, an urge that I don’t think would occur for all images for us. A boring image from a TV show we can’t stand will not fascinate us or cause emotions in us the same way a moving image would. This is why artworks are important, for in their inherent greatness they are especially good at helping us to practice metaphorical identification–because they can create people we can actually care about and want to understand.

That is a summary of Cohen’s argument, which I discuss in detail in the paper I wrote for my Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics seminar. This paper will appear below. I use these specific images above as my opening example because American Beauty and Edward Hopper will be the subject of my senior honors thesis. After I revise it I will be posting what will be the introduction to my thesis to explain the connections between Hopper and the film that have not yet been explored by scholars. But to get back to Cohen’s book, I really enjoyed his writing because it contained profound ideas that were written in a succinct, easily understandable way. I think for the most part academic writing is unnecessarily wordy and stuffy, so I really appreciated Cohen’s clear voice.

Ted Cohen’s Thinking of Others: On The Talent for Metaphor

Ted Cohen’s short book Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor is not a theory of art or beauty. In some ways, this makes Cohen’s work both the opposite of philosophy and a quintessential work of philosophy. On the one hand, unlike most of the art philosophy with which we have become acquainted this semester, Cohen does not try to provide a comprehensive, systematically constructed and analytically tested framework through which we might identify or define art. But then on the other hand, what is unique about Cohen’s work is that he shows in a way that is entirely relevant and important to everyday life why art actually matters, instead of presupposing that we should value art in our world and then proceeding to write about it. In this way Cohen accomplishes a goal that I would assume is at the core of philosophy, which is to explain why we are the way we are, why we create works of art, and why being thoughtful about life is just as important as living it.

And unlike other philosophers we have studied, Cohen links art and its worth to everyday life in a way that does not look down upon ordinary people with a judgmental, snobbish tone, in which art is the saving grace of a stupid, ignorant, materialistic society. Instead, Cohen successfully demonstrates why we need more than science and facts in order to build a healthy human race, why fiction is just as important as nonfiction. And going even further than other philosophers we have read, Cohen’s book does not only show us what art does and why we should appreciate it, such as Hegel’s historicist theory might; it also shows why we should strive to actively engage with art throughout our lives in order to cultivate our moral faculties. I would even conjecture that if art philosophers want to gain more recognition in the general public outside of philosophy circles, then they should follow in the steps of Cohen with this book.

The Basic Argument

The basic claim of the book, as Cohen explains in a footnote on the first page of his book, is that our ability to understand others is the same as our ability to create and comprehend metaphors. Cohen does not aim to explain the cognitive processes behind making metaphors or why we are able to understand metaphors, leaving this question to be explored by the work that other philosophers have done on the subject and admitting that “there is mystery at the heart of metaphor.”[1] While Cohen does not wish to analyze the metaphor itself, he does unpack what happens to the terms in a metaphor, such as in the case “Mussolini is a utensil.” In this case, the association of Mussolini with a utensil transforms the utensil, which is an inherently neutral object in terms of our general feelings about it, into a negative demonstration of Mussolini as a mere tool for Hitler’s motives.

Cohen then goes on to compare this metaphor, which compares a specific person to a general object, to an identity statement where a specific person is compared to another specific person or some kind of specific thing, such as in the statement “I am Robert Pinsky.” Cohen argues that the same process that we used to understand the metaphor “Mussolini is a utensil” is the same process used to imagine that “I am Robert Pinsky.” Cohen admits that this is a bit of a stretch to call that sentence a metaphor, but he asks from the readers that since “what one must do to grasp any of these sentences is to think of one thing as something it plainly is not…that, I think, is exactly what one must do to grasp a metaphor. Then even if it is inapt to to call these sentences metaphors, the knack for grasping them is the same as the knack for grasping metaphors.”[2]

Cohen is not concerned with technicality in his definition of these identity statements which he labels “metaphors of personal identification,” and I think he is right to not focus on that point. His overall argument is that we use our imagination to be able to think of ourselves or others as someone else, and the way we use that imagination is the same way we use it to imagine Mussolini as a utensil. “Understanding one another involves thinking of oneself as another, and thus the talent for doing this must be related to the talent for thinking of one thing as another,” with that last talent being the talent for understanding metaphor.[3] And since engaging with narratives and personas in art is done through metaphorical imagination, a life enriched with art will contribute to our capacity to understand others in our lives and thus help us live a moral life.

Examples of Metaphorical Identification in Real Life and the Role of Imagination

            Having established his idea of metaphors of personal identification, Cohen spends the rest of the book showing examples in real life and in literature of how imagination allows us to make metaphors of personal identification, which aid us in understanding others.

His first example lies in the typical methods parents use to teach their children how to interact in a civil manner with other children. Through this example, Cohen also demonstrates that metaphorical identification, unlike literal identification, is asymmetrical, and therefore has its own value. Cohen presents us with the question of what Abner would do in some situation. To answer this question, we might ask any of the following:

  1. What would Abner do? (How would Abner feel?)
  2. What would I do?
  3. What would I do if I were Abner?
  4. What would Abner do if her were me?[4]

The answer to these questions might be the same, but more likely than not they would all be different. This is because when we consider these questions, “what is involved is a metaphor, a metaphorical proposition that is a kind of identity statement.”[5] These questions involve metaphorical identification rather than literal identification because we are not simply becoming Abner in the literal sense that Abner = me; metaphorical identification is more complicated than that. Instead, we metaphorically imagine what Abner would do by considering his character in that situation, considering ourselves in that situation, considering ourselves as Abner, and considering Abner as us. If these were literal identifications, then the answer to all these questions would necessarily be the same, because if I literally become Abner, then either Abner becomes me or there is no longer a “me” separate from Abner. But with metaphorical identification, we imagine ourselves in Abner’s situation, or in his situation with Abner’s characteristics. Cohen’s argument here is that our ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes is a way of engaging with metaphor through personal metaphorical identification, and engaging with art is an especially effective way to exercise our ability to comprehend metaphor.

Fiction, which is another important arena Cohen explores, is where we can develop real feelings about unreal people through metaphorical identification. Cohen does not discuss this point explicitly, but it is clear that it does not matter for Cohen whether we ought or ought not to have real feelings about fictions. There is no reason we should actually become sad when a beloved character in a book loses a loved one, because it did not actually happen. But this logical point does not stop us from naturally having real feelings arise in us when we interact with fiction. Furthermore, as Cohen argues throughout his book, we are able to have these feelings through our ability to metaphorically identify with fiction, and this skill is the same one we employ when we attempt to identify with and thus understand real people in our real lives.

With the utility of real feelings about fictional people settled, Cohen first addresses the arguments in philosophy that we cannot have real feelings about fictional people. He believes these arguments come from one of two assumptions:

  1. One cannot have real feelings about things known not to exist, or at least the feelings one does have are not the same as the feelings one has about real, existent things.
  2. Ordinary readers, and extraordinary ones as well, do commonly say they are having real feelings about fictions, and they name these feelings with the same words they use when naming feelings they have about real, existent things.[6]

For Cohen, the burden of proof falls on the first assumption to justify itself in the face of the second assumption. He believes this because since regular people can talk about real feelings for fictions with one another without there being any confusion or the need for clarification, one cannot simply deny their experiences by asserting the first assumption. Besides, life experience tells us that our feelings about fictions are real. This would explain the phenomenon of Harry Potter fans who booed Tom Felton and Alan Rickman in real life because they portrayed contemptible characters in the movie series, or why cast members of the television mini-series “It” avoided Tim Curry during filming because of his creepy, haunting portrayal of Stephen King’s demon clown Pennywise. Even though all of the people involved in these examples know that they are engaging with fictions, and especially unrealistic fictions at that, this does not prevent them from being able to have and respond to real feelings about the fictions.

While of course our real feelings about fictions can lead us to have unrealistic expectations about real life, Cohen’s point is that our ability to have real feelings about fiction is what makes us capable of learning from fiction. As Cohen points out, lest we become hung up on the peculiarity of our ability to have real feelings about something unreal, the “variability in readers’ appreciation and understanding of fictional characters is no different from the variability we display when we come to like, love, dislike, hate, empathize with, blame, and praise the real people who inhabit our real world.”[7] The reason we can learn from fiction is because the way we interact with its characters is so similar to the way we interact with real people. The realm of fiction is therefore a place where we get to explore new situations through metaphorical identifications with personas unlike us, or at least different from us in a significant way. Through this exploration, we are able to simultaneously develop our ability to understand people because the talent required for such understanding is the same talent required to explore these fictions.

It is these experiences with fiction that can lead us to have new feelings or attitudes towards ourselves or other people, an especially powerful element of fiction. Cohen demonstrates this especially well in the Biblical story of Nathan and David. As Mark Johnson points out in his review of Cohen’s book, “The shock of ‘Thou art the man’ [at the climax of the story of Nathan and David] is the shock of personal metaphorical identification, in which seeing oneself as another can be the basis for a re-configuration of one’s self.”[8] Whereas before David digested Nathan’s story and grasped the greed in the rich man’s action, Nathan’s declaration of “Thou art the man” forces David to realize that “I am the rich man,” metaphorically identifying himself with a man he hated. David’s interaction with fiction, about which he had real feelings, helped him to see his own situation in a new light through his ability to imagine himself in a different situation with a different identity.

To further elucidate how our talent for metaphorical identification allows us to understand others, Cohen turns to sports next. Cohen claims that the concept of virtuosity itself, which he defines for us as “the exhibition of something difficult done without apparent effort,”[9] would be impossible for us to even have if we did not have the ability to imagine that something that looks easy to do is actually difficult. Virtuosity is one of the reasons we enjoy professional sports, but we also admire it in art as well, such as when we attend a symphony orchestra concert or view an impressive painting. In these instances of appreciating virtuosity, Cohen argues that we are able to do so because we can metaphorically imagine ourselves as the people doing these actions, and when we do so we can picture the difficulty entailed in them.

This kind of metaphorical imagination of ourselves in someone else’s situation is also what we are able to do when we become fans of a sports team. Although it does not personally affect most fans whether a team does well, these fans are still able to genuinely be excited if their team wins or saddened if their team loses. This happens because we can metaphorically identify ourselves with the team, so that its successes and struggles become our successes and struggles. This is a capability that is also necessary to cultivate in our relationships with others and when we are in positions of power where we make decisions that will affect other people. As Cohen demonstrates with his personal friend who is a fan of Cohen’s enemy team, the New York Yankees, Cohen is still able to feel bad for his friend when the Yankees lose because he can imagine what his friend is going through and metaphorically identify himself with his friend in his friend’s situation. This empathy which we carry out in sports fandom “is no more difficult than what is required of us in living in the non-sporting parts of life with other people, and it is no less difficult than that.”[10]

Imagining what it is like to have a different identity from our own, to metaphorically identify with another experience, is also what we do when we imagine how others see us or when we imagine ourselves in future circumstances, as Cohen argues. To imagine ourselves as others see us, especially, is “a marvelously intricate task, very difficult to do because it requires…both leaving yourself and bringing yourself along…you must imagine yourself to be the other person, and then, in your newly-imagined embodiment, you must look back at the real you and discover what you see.”[11] In this task, Cohen argues that the way we imagine ourselves to be someone else and then use that new identity to judge our real selves is the same as thinking “I (A) am B. What do I (as B), think of A?” This is how we engage in a metaphor of personal identification, and it is clear that trying to think of how others see us is vital to having healthy, considerate relationships with others. Therefore, opportunities to engage in metaphor should be sought out in order to nurture this interpersonal skill within us.

Identifying oneself in future circumstances is also important to help us make decisions. Cohen regards this as another metaphor of personal identification, a special case in which although we are identifying with ourselves, it is a metaphorical identification because we identify with ourselves in a future situation which has not happened to us yet and is thus not us. But this skill, which draws from the same fountain as that for identifying metaphorically with other people, is just as important for our life with others. When we consider whether to marry someone, for example, we have to imagine ourselves in the future, committed to someone else, and figure out whether that is an identity we can happily take on for the rest of our lives. If we are not able to do this, we risk marrying someone (or not marrying someone we should have married) without judging whether that is a good decision for the long term and causing that person hardship as well as ourselves. Thus even the ability to metaphorically identify with ourselves in a different circumstance is needed to have a good life with others.


Where does art figure into the cultivation of our ability to use metaphor? “This ability to tell stories that promise to secure human understanding is nothing more or less than one of the powers of art. And I think our ability to be reached by this power is…our moral imagination, and that…is deployed in our comprehension of…metaphors of personal identification.”[12] Because art deliberately attempts to cleverly manipulate language of any kind to create compelling narratives, it is the best realm in which we can find ways to explore scenarios of human life through metaphorical identification and learn how to better understand others. Without art, we would not have the captivating stories that, because of their masterful use of language, are able to communicate these lessons to us. If a story is told poorly, or blandly, it is harder to have feelings about its characters, and without those feelings, we will have a harder time metaphorically identifying with the story. In his review of Cohen’s book, Eldridge notes that literary devices significantly contribute to our ability to engage with stories and to our willingness to bother thinking deeply about them: “Our attentions to works of literature are frequently all at once imaginative, emotional, and formal, and the most powerful fictions seem to draw on all three dimensions at once.”[13] It is very unlikely that we are going to imagine on our own what it would be like to live in different circumstances, and even if we did, we could not fathom all the possible life stories that exist and have lessons to teach us. Art serves the crucial role of providing us, in an interesting way, a diverse multitude of opportunities to try on different lives through metaphorical imagination. Along the way in our journey with art, we learn more about how to communicate and live harmoniously with others in our world.

Works Cited

Cohen, Ted. Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Eldridge, Richard. Review of “Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor.”

Johnson, Mark. Review of “Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor.”

[1] Ted Cohen. Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), 1.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid., 36.

[7] Ibid., 78.

[8] Mark Johnson. Review of Cohen’s Book, 2.

[9] Cohen, Thinking of Others, 58.

[10] Ibid., 63.

[11] Ibid., 65.

[12] Ibid., 72.

[13] Richard Eldridge. Review of Cohen’s book, 9.

Danto’s “Transfiguration of the Commonplace”; A Generously Cosmopolitan Theory of Art

23 Mar

Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace

    Consider Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. It is simply a urinal, with “R. Mutt” written on the side. Is it an artwork? Kant would have us answer this question by deciding whether we can engage in the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties as we look at it. Let us say that we do. In that case, Kant would say it must be art and it must be beautiful. But let us consider all the other urinals built, which all look identical to Fountain. Since we are basing our determination of this object as art based on our Kantian visual analysis of it, it follows that all of these urinals would have to be considered artworks as well. And yet, that sounds ridiculous, because we would never say that the public urinal at the rest stop is art. What is Kant’s theory missing?

    In the first four chapters of Arthur Danto’s book Transfigurations of the Commonplace, Danto pushes against theories of art which use aesthetic or expressive properties to identify works of art, arguing that these properties are not enough to distinguish between mere real things and works of art, especially in the cases where a mere real thing and an artwork are visually so similar that it is impossible to tell which object is which simply by observation. To illustrate this, Danto gives us an example of several objects which all look identical, and yet are not all works of art. The first is a painting of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, and it is a simply a red square on canvas. Then there is a painting adjacent to it called “Kierkegaard’s Mood,” which consists of a set of red rectangles placed next to each other. Then next to this painting is a landscape painting called “Red Square,” which resembles the other two paintings exactly. Several other works by other names and by other artists are placed next to these works, such as Matisse’s “Red Table Cloth” and a metaphysical painting titled “Nirvana.” There is also the unfinished Giorgione canvas which would have been titled “Conversazione Sacra,” and it is merely a canvas primed with red paint.

All of these objects are materially identical. Yet they all have profoundly different expressive contents, and not all of them are even artworks. This example shows how expressive or aesthetic properties alone cannot define something as an artwork. Contrary to Kant’s aesthetic theory which implores us to look at an object without outside information to determine its beauty and status as art, Danto shows us through this example that it is absolutely necessary to consider an object’s context, and not only the properties conveyed through its materials, to determine not only its meaning but also whether it is art.

For Danto, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes defied traditional definitions of art because they depend on criteria which the Brillo Boxes render ineffective. In fact, Danto goes so far as to say that with the Brillo Boxes, “the possibilities” for exclusive definitions of art “are effectively closed and that the history of art has come, in a way, to an end. It has not stopped but ended, in the sense that it has passed over into a kind of consciousness of itself and become, again in a way, its own philosophy: a state of affairs predicted in Hegel’s philosophy of history.” The problem that Brillo Boxes raises lies in the fact that Warhol’s creation looked identical to the commercial Brillo pad container, and yet Warhol’s was a work of art worth a substantial amount of money while the product can be bought in stores for mere dollars. Since each object looks exactly the same, it would only make sense that we would view both as having expressive and/or aesthetic properties. But these theories cannot account for the fact that we do not in fact view both objects as artwork but instead only one of them, and why that is.

Danto believes that the answer to this question is in part historical. “Not everything is possible at every time…meaning that certain artworks simply could not be inserted as artworks into certain periods of art history.” Objects which would have been considered artworks in one historical period could not be artworks in another historical period. Danto demonstrates this by using Robert Morris’s piles of hemp to show how such a work would be received in different times. While Morris can now exhibit this as an artwork, he would have been unsuccessful in doing so in seventeenth-century Antwerp, for instance, because “the concept of art had not then evolved in such a way as to be able to accommodate it as an instance.” In other words, we were not ready to receive Morris’s hemp piles as art until the time that he made them. This idea shares more with Hegel’s emphasis on history than with Kant’s timeless theory of beauty, because it emphasizes that art means certain things at certain times, and it would be impossible for art to have the same effect on people whether they lived in thirteenth-century China or twentieth-century America. Danto also uses an interesting example from language to highlight the importance of context in defining something as art. “You cannot identify something as witty, by any necessary attributes of it, for the same line in one context can be witty there but not in another,” he reminds us. Similarly, without the context of the red square paintings used in Danto’s earlier example, we would not know whether to treat it as Matisse’s work of art or as Giorgione’s primed canvas.

The other important part to answering this question is recognizing that there is a subject matter, a content, to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, while for the identical brillo containers we could buy in a store there is not subject matter or content. This explains why Warhol can take artistic credit for the Brillo Boxes while whoever originally designed brillo containers cannot. Warhol used the Brillo Boxes to say something, to make a mundane object have “aboutness”. He uses these boxes to question our established notions of where you find art. This is what separates the visually identical brillo containers from the Brillo Boxes, a distinction that would have been lost in Kant’s theory.

    The idea of aboutness being helpful in identification of artworks does not by itself explain why some things that also have aboutness or semantic meaning, i.e. are representations, are not artworks as well. What makes some representations artworks and others not is whether they are interpreted as artworks. Danto explains this by likening the identification of an object as an artwork to a transformation of the object into art via interpretation. “In art, every new interpretation is a Copernican revolution, in the sense that each interpretation constitutes a new work, even if the object differently interpreted remains, as the skies, invariant under transformation. An object o is then an artwork only under an interpretation I, where I is a sort of function that transfigures o into a work: I(o) = W.” Even though what we saw did not change when Copernicus changed our understanding of the universe as centered on the Sun rather than the Earth, the way we thought about the universe and interpreted it was forever altered. Similarly, interpretation has the power to change a mere real thing into an artwork in our eyes.

The moment when a representation is given an interpretation is like the moment of linguistic representation being used to interpret objects. As Danto writes, interpretation, which is artistic identification, has as “its linguistic representation…a certain identificatory use of ‘is,’ which I shall merely designate the ‘is’ of artistic identification: as when one says a dab of paint that it is Icarus, or of a smudge of blue paint that it is the sky…It is a usage mastered in the nursery when the child pointing to a picture of a cat says that it is a cat.” When we identify a smudge of paint as sky, we are not literally identifying it as the sky, because it is not the real sky. This demonstrates the gap between both art and reality and language and reality. “Art differs from reality in much the same way that language does when language is employed descriptively…[art’s] ontology is of a piece with that of language, and…the contrast exists between reality and it which exists between reality and discourse.” Both art and language represent real things the world without being the real things themselves, and thus it is necessary for artistic and linguistic representations to have interpretations so that we can understand and identify them as art and language.

Continuing his theory of art as against the traditional use of aesthetic properties, Danto begins his argument as to why aesthetic properties cannot be used to define a representation as art by using the art theory of George Dickie. Dickie’s institutional theory of art, which states that a work of art is a “candidate for appreciation” if it is given that status by the artworld, which Dickie defines as, according to Danto, “an institutionally enfranchised group of persons who serve, so to speak, as trustees for the generalized musée imaginaire.” What this leads to according to Ted Cohen whom Danto also cites, “is that there are certain objects which cannot be appreciated, [and] the citizenry of the artworld is bounded by the constraints of appreciability and cannot by fiat declare just anything a work of art.” Cohen gives specific examples of objects that could not be appreciated aesthetically, and thus cannot be works of art. These include “ordinary thumbtacks, cheap white envelopes, the plastic forks given at some drive-in restaurants, [and] urinals.”

What Danto objects to in this view of art is that it is unclear “whether the claim is that these cannot be appreciated or simply cannot be appreciated favorably.” And if it is the case that the only things that are art are those which can be favorably appreciated, then Danto believes this theory unjustly leaves out the legitimate possibility for negative appreciation of works of art. “We are repelled, disgusted, even sickened by certain works of art. To restrict to the favorable cases the application of the epithet ‘work of art’ would be parallel to regarding moral considerations as arising only with persons and actions which had some ‘minimal potential value or worthiness.’” For Danto, whether a work is disgusting or not, it should be able to be aesthetically appreciated in some way. And even if it cannot be aesthetically appreciated, it should still be able to be a work of art. “Even granting that the thumbtack itself was beneath appreciation, it would not follow that an artwork materially like a mere thumbtack could not be appreciated; and that to which we might respond appreciatively would be the properties of the artwork without necessarily being the properties of the thumbtack.” Furthermore, to focus on appreciation of the aesthetic properties of an artwork could be, especially in some cases, to miss what is most important about the work altogether. While Dickie says we can appreciate Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for its ordinary qualities which are also found in a normal urinal, and thus he defends his way of identifying art through aesthetic properties. But as Danto points out, this completely misses what is actual vital to understanding, let alone appreciating, Duchamp’s Fountain. Indeed, “If what made Fountain an artwork were only the qualities it shared with urinals, the question would arise as to what makes it an artwork and not those…[Dickie] has emphasized how something gets to be a work of art, which may be institutional, and neglected in favor of aesthetic considerations the question of what qualities constitute an artwork once something is one.”

Danto then offers his own view on why aesthetic properties are inadequate to identify works of art. While an artwork may have aesthetic qualities, one would have to know that the object is an artwork first, because real things versus artworks require different responses. “We may cry at a representation of a mother’s despair at the death of a child, but he would be hardhearted who just wept at the correspondent reality; the thing is to comfort and console.” Since we can respond aesthetically to both artworks and mere real things, we cannot depend on aesthetic properties to determine what objects are art and which are not.

Danto’s theory, which encompasses more artworks in a way that many theories of art do not, is useful in that it solves puzzling cases in the history of art, for example why some modern and contemporary artworks are in museums despite their close resemblance to a painted wall found in most homes or a toddler’s finger painting project. Yet while his theory can explain and perhaps comfort those who may be frustrated by how such simplistic works can be worth millions of dollars and be considered artistic achievements, it leaves one wondering whether such works actually deserve to be artworks. Against Dickie, Danto had defended works which may repulse us as still being worthy to be considered artworks. Yet is it fair to consider works as art those which are only about shocking us, and have no actual meaning or message behind them? While Danto’s theory requires us to still call such works art, we are still allowed to consider them terrible artworks. But depending on one’s reverence for the category of art, it may not sit right to let that category be so inclusive and allow the risk of it losing its respectability.

Works Cited

Danto, Arthur C. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano PMA Exhibition Review

13 Mar

Kano Hogai. Two Dragons, 1885. Ink on paper. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Two Dragons, shown above, is one of the numerous beautiful works on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for their spring exhibition, “Ink and Gold: The Art of the Kano,” on display from February 16th- May 10th. They also showed another Asian art exhibition last year around the same time, on the art of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, and thus this similarity naturally invites comparison between the two. Personally, I found the Korean exhibition from last year to be more satisfying and enriching than the Kano school exhibition, although I did find faults with it which I discussed in my review of the exhibition that I wrote for my UPenn class on Museum Studies last year.

The main reason I felt unsatisfied with the exhibit is a reason that also gives credit to its curators for choosing such beautiful, fascinating artworks: I wanted to know more about them. While the exhibit had many more themes that PMA exhibits usually do, which meant there were more general wall texts in each room of the exhibit than is typical, none of the artworks themselves had any accompanying text to tell us more about them. So I was left knowing generalized facts about the works in a given room, while left wondering the story behind each specific artwork. My guess as to why they did this for this exhibition, which is pretty unusual, is that since all of the works are on paper and so they will have to rotate the works that are on view in the exhibition three times during its on view dates, it would be a lot of work to come up with new captions for all four rotations, because that would be four times the amount of captions they would normally write for one exhibition. So practically it makes more sense to just use more wall texts that can apply to many artworks rather than using more individualized texts. Still, as a visitor who likes to stop and read almost everything in an exhibition, I was disappointed to not be able to learn more about individual artworks.

But like I said, my desire for more attests to the fact that the exhibition does contain visually interesting artworks that would whet my appetite for more. The exhibit did an excellent of job of showing how the art of the Kano school changed throughout its long history as it adapted with changing cultures and changing hands of power within Japan. It was clear to see the distinct contributions that different Kano artists made during their life, such as how second-generation artist Kano Motonobu brought more color and gold leaf to the school’s repertoire. This contribution was preceded by the founder of the school, Kano Masanobu, whose delicate, precise line-work is at its finest in works such as the four hanging scrolls titled “Queen Mother of the West and Dong Fang Shuo” and the hanging scroll “Hermit Viewing Waterfall, both made in the fifteenth century. Again, here I would have liked to know more about the reasons Masanobu created these works, or perhaps an analysis of the symbolism used in nature motifs in these works.

The exhibition continues with more themes involving notable Kano masters such as Kano Tan’yu, favored subjects in Kano school painting, Kano school patrons, the practices of the Kano school including copying ancient masterworks, and the revival of the Kano school in the 19th century as well as the affect of Western influences in near-modern times. An especially interesting fact was discovered in the room which had as one of its themes “Mount Fuji.” This famous Japanese landmark, according to the exhibition, was painted by Kano master and child prodigy Kano Tan’yu over twenty-five times, and he pioneered the drawing of a subject (in this case Mount Fuji) from real-life observation instead of from an idealized, pre-made or pre-conceived image. Drawing from observation was of course an important part of both the realist movement and the impressionist movement in the West, so it was very interesting for me to see the same technique appearing in Japanese art.

Something that I was thinking about throughout the exhibition made me curious about the study and exhibition of Japanese art. All of the works in the exhibition, which were all on paper and were either painted on screens, on scrolls, or on fans, were functional in some way. Unlike paintings in the West, which were made with the spirit of “art for art’s sake” at the advent of modernism, all of these works, when they were originally made, served a decorative function. They decorated rooms in some way. Screens served to create two rooms out of one by acting as a divider. Yet when we discuss these works, we basically discuss them the same way that we discuss Western paintings. While there is a clear distinction between decorative art and “fine” art in Western culture (hence the reason there is a decorative arts wing in most museums which is separate from paintings) there is no such distinction in non-Western art. I think it would be interesting to think about these works as decorative, and I feel like we would get a better understanding of them if we think about how they were used and perceived in the historical period and culture in which we were made. By assimilating them to Western culture by treating them the exact same way we treat Western painting, I feel as if I lose the chance to have a fuller, more accurate understanding of them as distinctly Japanese art forms.

Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus”, and Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire”

5 Mar



Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus.” 1920. India ink, colored chalk, and brown wash on paper. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

I never thought that I would get the chance to write a paper for my Postmodern Religious Thought seminar that combined my studies in Art History, Philosophy, and Religion, but I was excited and fortunate to be able to do just that with my reading of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In this essay, Benjamin discussing Paul Klee’s surrealist mixed media drawing titled “Angelus Novus,” which was the inspiration for Benjamin’s concept of the Angel of History that he uses to expound on his idea of historical materialism. The Wim Wenders 1987 film titled “Wings of Desire,” which is about angels walking amongst people in Berlin just before the Berlin Wall was demolished, also had parallels to Benjamin’s Angel of History. We watched a short clip of this film the first week of class, and when I read this part of Benjamin I immediately thought of it. So I decided to incorporate the film into my essay as well. While I do not necessarily agree with Benjamin’s ideas, I really enjoyed exploring how they could be interpreted and expressed in various artistic media. This is my favorite way to think about art.

The Wings of Desire of the New Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’s Vision of History

Before Benjamin, There Was Hegel

Before the monstrous tragedies that occurred during World War II in the twentieth century, philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel were able to see history as generally progressive, with humanity and its institutions always improving as they moved forward in time. Hegel fully developed this view, known as historicism, into a comprehensive theory that showed how art, religion and philosophy helped human cultures in specific historical epochs progressively discover deeper understandings of human self-consciousness, a stronger connection to the Absolute (what Hegel calls the divine “Spirit”), and more effective notions of freedom. In Hegel’s sense, this freedom does not refer to an existence without constraint or with individual autonomy, but instead a sense of feeling at home in one’s relationships with others, and feeling peaceful and comfortable in the choices we make as to who we consider our family, the institutions we build, and the way we live as citizens of a state.

Art, religion, and philosophy are what Hegel defines as the three forms of the absolute Spirit, in that they are the fundamental forms which reveal and reflect to us our self-consciousness, our Spirit, our freedom. At certain points in history, one of these forms dominated the others as the most accurate form to depict that historical era’s Spirit. First, art was the dominant form of Spirit for the Ancient Greeks. Then religion, specifically Christianity for Hegel, replaced Art in its creation during the Ancient Roman era as the dominant form. In the modern era, which for Hegel began during the Renaissance and has continued to Hegel’s day in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and beyond), philosophy has been the form that has best captured our society’s freedom and spirit. For Hegel, our modern institutions of the nuclear family, the free-market economy, and the parliamentary democracy are the conditions which will best guarantee our freedom (as Hegel defines it) in the modern world. With modern philosophy at the wheel, we have tapped into our Spirit and self-consciousness as a culture. History has been a steady marathon and we have finally reached the finish line in the modern era.

Hegel’s Historicism versus Benjamin’s Historical Materialism

Hegel did not live to see World War II, and so perhaps his notion that we have reached the epitome of human progress would have changed. But for those who did live to see World War II, such as Walter Benjamin, the shock that was the project of Nazism and its resulting mass genocide profoundly shattered in their minds this historicist view of human history and any questions of progress. For Benjamin, whose writings in his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” stem from Marxist theory, history was not a story of progress, but a harrowing accumulation of destruction. Even when humanity made small bursts of progress through legislation or reform, these victories were only superficial, and did not address the inherent evils in our systems and nature. This view, which Benjamin refers to in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” as historical materialism, requires revolutionary change by the hands of individuals. In harsh contrast to historicism, which finds the individual detrimental and sudden revolutions hostile to the communal progress of peoples, historical materialism champions the bold actions of individuals against the faceless institutions of the masses and shuns historicists who empathize with the victors—those powerful elite who, as the adage goes, are the ones who write history. In a passage which would directly address Hegel’s admiring account of art, religion, and philosophy, Benjamin reveals the appropriative nature of such accounts of history:

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate…the spoils are carried along in this procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.[1]

While Hegel admires the art of Ancient Greece, especially Greek sculpture, as the epitome of its Spirit, Benjamin sees such objects as products of the toil of anonymous, talented but disenfranchised artisans which are appropriated by powerful people in powerful institutions. While in museums and elsewhere there is only one artist, if any, given credit for an ancient artwork such as a Greek sculpture, there are in fact a workshop’s worth of people who have contributed to that piece and yet can never claim any sort of ownership or reward for their work. And not only are they not given credit, but they are also erased from history, and even the products they are forced to make are completely taken away from them. But historicism wants to gloss over these ugly truths of humanity’s past and present, instead favoring an “eternal image” of the past which obnoxiously glorifies it. Benjamin gives us a vivid image of historicism’s exaltation of the past which historical materialism soberly avoids: “The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”[2] Historicism for Benjamin is blind to the destruction of the past and views it instead with rose-tinted glasses, using an “additive” method in which time keeps moving forward and achievements pile on in a tower of progress. Historical materialism, on the other hand, is guided by what Benjamin calls the Angel of History, an angel who sees the past for what it is and looks on in horror.

Benjamin’s Angel of History: Klee’s Angelus Novus

Benjamin was heavily inspired by Paul Klee’s surrealist mixed media drawing Angelus Novus for his concept of the Angel of History (see fig. 1). One of Klee’s thousands of artworks created over his lifetime, he created it in 1920, a breakout year for the artist in which a major retrospective of his artwork was exhibited at the Galerie Hans Goltz in Munich, he was appointed to the faculty of the Bauhaus, a cutting-edge art school founded by Walter Gropius, and he published his book Creative Confession, which detailed his personal artistic theories.[3] If it were not for the public attention that Klee received that year, it is possible Benjamin would have never seen Angelus Novus, which is not considered an important work for Klee outside of its influence on Benjamin. In most scholarship on the work, it is only studied in reference to Benjamin, who was so taken with the work he purchased it in 1921.[4] Benjamin’s famous passage in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” interprets Angelus Novus, which translates as “New Angel,” as a depiction of the Angel of History who laments history’s destructive past:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[5]

This terrifying vision of human history deliberately uses dramatic language to awaken readers to the oppressive nature of human history which historicism has glossed over and covered up with an overriding narrative of progress and increasing knowledge. The angel, occupying an omniscient position where it can see all of history’s “wreckages,” wants to heal and reform the destruction that it sees. Yet the angel is powerless, for the storm of “Paradise,” which Benjamin sarcastically associates with historicism’s notion of progress, forces time forward. This goes against the orientation towards time that Benjamin believes historical materialists have, where “time stands still and has come to a stop” because this “defines the present in which [the historical materialist] is writing history.”[6] Benjamin and the Angel of History want to shout for us to stop the train of progress, to recognize that we have to stand still where we are and reflect on the past’s wreckages. If we do not stop, that storm of progress will continue to propel us forward, and we will not be able to stop these wreckages from accumulating.

Benjamin takes significant liberty to interpret all of this from Klee’s simple but cryptic drawing. But Klee seems to invite interpretations of hidden truths becoming revealed through art. One of the main ideas of Creative Confession is that “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes it visible.”[7] While it is most likely that Klee did not make Angelus Novus with Benjamin or historical materialism in mind, the artwork’s depiction of a “New Angel” subtly works in the spirit of historical materialist ideas. If we look at the artwork without knowing the title, we probably would not identify the sole figure that makes up the drawing as an angel. This is a subversive trait of the image which Klee may or may not have intended. For most of us, our idea of what an angel looks like comes from the Christian tradition, where angels are usually white, golden-haired corpulent infants or muscular and voluptuous adults, clothed in white robes with large white wings and a golden halo. Instead of presenting us with an image as such to force us to conform to the Western Christian idea of an angel, Klee takes the liberty to define for himself what an angel looks like. He uses the idea of an angel of which dominant Western Christian institutions have taken ownership and frees it back to the realm of individual interpretation. He recognizes that we do not have to draw or think of an angel the way that dominant powers have told us we should through the canonization of artistic motifs. As individuals, like Klee has done here, we can create a “New Angel” for ourselves, and thus be the harbingers of cataclysmic change that historical materialism encourages us to be.

“Wings of Desire”: Angels of History Made Manifest

Wim Wenders’ 1987 film “Wings of Desire,” whose original title translates from German as “The Sky Over Berlin,” is fascinating in the ways it manifests Benjamin’s characterization of the Angel of History. Set in Berlin a couple years before the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the mostly black-and-white film tells the story of the angel Damiel, who yearns to be human so he can have the sensuous experiences humans enjoy as they engage with the world through their five senses. Like the angel depicted in Angelus Novus, these angels do not look the way we would normally expect angels to look: they have a human form, but they wear trench coats, are clean shaven, and keep their medium-length hair in short ponytails. In the film, angels walk among the humans, but they cannot touch them, see colors, taste food, or hear music, among other limitations. Like the Angel of History, they also cannot help but see all of the past and hear all of humanity’s thoughts at once. Being omniscient, they cannot be blissfully ignorant or even temporarily forget the tragedies of the past and present, and so they also yearn for the uncertainty and limited knowledge and perspective that humans have. “It’s wonderful to live as spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people’s minds,” says Damiel to his fellow angel, Cassiel. “But sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence. I don’t want to always hover above. I’d rather feel a weight within casting off this boundless freedom and tying me to the earth.”[8] Damiel is expressing a desire to no longer be an Angel of History. He would like to give up the power he has to see the entirety of humanity and history and simply be able to live in one community and attend only to the choices of one life. He would like to rid himself of the burden of acute awareness of humanity’s problems, but for now he has the duty of the Angel of History to record the truth of all, rather than just the truth of the victors as historicism does.

While the film mostly follows Damiel as he walks among and admires from afar the lives of humans, Cassiel goes on his own journey. Intermittently he follows an old man who considers himself a storyteller. As the old man browses books in the library and replays memories of death in his mind, he wonders why no one has “sung an epic of peace.” “What is it about peace that its inspiration is not enduring?” he wonders. Then later in the film, this man ponders, “Why doesn’t everyone see from earliest childhood the passes, portals, and crevices down on the earth and up in the sky? If everyone saw them, history would continue without killing and war.”[9] These questions the old man considers echoes Walter Benjamin’s concept of history being “shot through with chips of Messianic time.”[10] The old man’s laments speak to the same desire that the Angels of History have, which is that people would look for times to redeem society, to spur revolutions which will alter the destructive conditions of life enough to allow peace to prosper in its stead. These opportunities are small but abundant, “For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”[11] Yet this is the crucial element of history that is the only way Benjamin believes we can stop wreckages from piling up, the awful sight that the Angel of History is forced to behold while being powerless to stop it.

“Wings of Desire” ends with the same old man reflecting on the desire for peace that he shares with the angels and the historical materialists alike. Cassiel watches the man from afar as he walks towards the Berlin wall, and the man thinks, “Tell me of the men, women, and children who will look for me—me, their storyteller, their bard, their choirmaster—because they need me more than anything in the world. We have embarked.”[12] This storyteller, who recognizes the importance of seizing the moments we have for Messianic time, knows that we need him in order to know the actual truth, rather than the self-serving truth that historicism tries to pass off as universal. If we let ourselves forget the true oppression that occurs, the wreckages that the Angel of History is forced to see and remain powerless to change, those shots that we do have to seize Messianic time for revolution will disappear altogether. This is what the storyteller, the Angels of History, and Benjamin beg us to grasp.


Hegel’s Philosophy of Art as Historically Functioning

1 Mar

This is another paper I wrote for my class on Aesthetics. It focuses on Hegel’s theory of art, which sees it as a historical function. Again, it makes me consider the implications for this on museums. How cool would it be to have an exhibition which uses Hegel’s theory of art as the theme and examines how his theory would cause us to treat different artworks, which would be different from the way we treat them now?

Hegel and His History of Art as Conceptions of Freedom

To be free has looked myriad ways to both philosophers and laypeople alike, yet freedom as a concept is often considered to be one of humanity’s basic desires. One of the fundamental differences between Kant and Hegel is the role that freedom plays in each of their theories of art and of beauty. Both philosophers understood that experiencing art and beauty involved freedom in some way, but they differed in their views as to the source and creation of that freedom. Kant believed that it was humans who provided the freedom in the experience of the beautiful, with the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties being the process that allowed us to truly see what was beautiful and what was not. In Kant’s conception, freedom is experienced within oneself, and it is therefore Kant’s goal for individuals to live autonomously based on individual reasoning. Hegel, on the other hand, believed that it was in fact the art object, the beautiful object, that allowed us to recognize our freedom in a sensuous way. Thus for Hegel, freedom is something we experience through others and in others, because for him freedom is based on how we feel in the world living and relating with other people. Whereas Kant saw humans as the liberators of the beautiful through harmonious cognitive free play, Hegel viewed art itself as the objects that showed us our freedom.

            Other philosophers that we have talked about in the seminar, such as Hume and Kant, identify and elucidate art and beauty in a timeless, unchanging way. For Hume, art will always be able to be identified by a consensus among experts with certain characteristics. For Kant, individuals will always be able to experience the beautiful for themselves through the process of harmonious cognitive free play, and what is determined to be beautiful will be agreed upon by all and remain beautiful. Hegel, on the other hand, recognizes that art and beauty changes as times change. The reason they change for Hegel is that art has a specific historical function in human life based on its status as one of the three forms of the absolute Spirit, forms which are fundamental for reflection upon what people hold highest, or value most, in a particular epoch.

To understand the absolute Spirit and its significance for human life in Hegel’s philosophy, it is important to understand Hegel’s conception of human life. Drawing from Plato, Hegel believes that in the absolute, which is literally everything, there is an absolute Idea, or abstract patterns for everything. While physical, actual forms may change, the absolute Idea which they represent does not change, making it in some ways more real than the physical representation. Hegel believes that the point of this absolute Idea is freedom. Everything, according to Hegel, is ultimately striving for freedom. By freedom, Hegel does not man without limitations or constraint, nor autonomy in the Kantian sense. Instead, Hegel takes a much more social, collective view on freedom, in which freedom represents being with oneself in another, and feeling at home in the world we create for ourselves through the choices we make. Everyone is striving to find the things that will give us our fullest, most realized freedom. For us humans, “the purpose of human life is to both be free in our various social, political, and familial practices and to deepen our consciousness and understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit.”[1]

To find the fullest expressions of human life and freedom, which will differ depending on the historical period since resources available to people change and knowledge changes, we must look, Hegel tells us, to the three forms of the absolute Spirit. Hegel believed in God and the absolute being one and the same, and so these forms of the absolute Spirit were ways to understand ourselves and freedom, which come from God.[2] The three forms of the absolute spirit are philosophy, religion, and art. Each of these forms were best able to capture truth and freedom at different points in history, because, as Eldridge points out, the Spirit develops throughout history just as human life develops.[3] In the modern era, Hegel believes that we no longer need art the way we did in earlier times because it no longer serves its highest vocation. Art for Hegel is limited to a specific conception of truth, a truth that “in virtue of its own specific character be able to go forth into [the sphere of] sense and remain adequate to itself there.”[4] The specific conception to which art was limited flourished during the Classical era of the ancient Greek civilization, for Hegel. Now, Hegel believes it is philosophy which bests grasps our conception of freedom and best understands our truth and our self-consciousness. This does not mean that we do not need art anymore, however. Since art no longer has to fulfill the task which philosophy has now taken over, “it may now explore and reconcile us to quite particular circumstances of life and feeling,” as Eldridge explains.[5] No longer focused on big-picture truth telling, art can now respond to smaller expressions of freedom and self-consciousness.

While philosophy provides the clearest understanding of the truth for us, and religion helps us understand truth through “feeling, faith, and imaginative representations,”[6] art gives us the most sensuous expression of freedom and Spirit. Art manifests in a sensuous way what philosophy and religion can only express through ideas and word, reconciling “between pure thought and what is merely external, sensuous, and transient, between nature and finite reality and the infinite freedom of conceptual thinking.”[7] The reason art reconciles between pure thought and the sensuous is that art is a sensuous expression of humanity and crucial to our deepening understanding of humanity. It is not merely sensuous in that it only appeals to the senses, nor is it pure thought (like philosophy or religion) because it has sensuous form. We need that sensuous expression because it is the only way or the best way in many cultures to reveal the truths that are necessary to understanding humanity. It is in this way that “the work of art brings before us the eternal powers that govern history.”[8] Since everything strives towards a freedom in which we are home in the world we create based on our choices, art is special in that it visually brings to us the eternal powers of humans to create societies and institutions, and form relationships which aid our being in others, the interconnectivity through which we are liberated.

Hegel also believes that art is a crucial third form of absolute Spirit because unlike philosophy or religion it has a visual component, an appearance. This appearance “is essential to essence,” because “truth would not be truth if it did not show itself and appear, if it were not truth for someone and for itself, as well as for the spirit in general too.”[9] We need art because we are sensuous beings, and as sensuous beings we need to see the truth in order to fully grasp the truth of our freedom. Art is also “often the key, and in many nations the sole key, to understanding their philosophy and religion.” What art does that philosophy and religion cannot do by themselves is to express “even the highest reality sensuously, bringing it thereby nearer to the senses to feeling, and to nature’s mode of appearance.”[10] While philosophy and religion contain full expressions of human life and freedom, art is the force that makes them most accessible to us in the world which is experienced and registered through the senses.

Hegel considers art to be a “universal and absolute need” because “man is a thinking consciousness, i.e. that man draws out of himself and puts before himself what he is and whatever else is…inwardly he must bring himself into his own consciousness…man brings himself before himself by practical activity.”[11] This draws attention to the fact that Hegel believes thinking and will occur in the same action and are inseparable. One must not only think, but act on that thinking through willful actions. Art is special as compared to philosophy and religion in this respect because art represent the unity of thinking and will. It is a “practical activity” which brings our freedom and self-consciousness to the fore, an action of thought and the willful manifestation of that thought occurring simultaneously.

This duality of thought and will also speaks to Hegel’s view of art as directed both to individuals and to appearance, rather than being a merely sensuous exercise or some abstract concept. While Plato thought of art in the latter sense, and philosophers such as Hume and Kant saw art as accessed through the senses and meant to provide a kind of sensuous pleasure, Hegel sees art as a sensuous form of the conception of freedom and the Spirit. Since the Spirit is God, and God works in and through us to create free lives on earth which honor God, the Spirit works through us to create art, and so art is a reflection of ourselves, our self-consciousness, and our freedom. Hence it is much more for Hegel than a sensuous pleasure. Yet we need, according to Hegel, to create and see physical conceptions of the Spirit as ourselves and freedom, and so a wholly abstract view of art such as Plato’s would be unsatisfying in a Hegelian world where art’s main aim is to serve the Spirit. Hegel uses a poignant analogy that speaks to this conception, where he describes the boy that throws stones into the river. In this action, the boy “marvels at the circles drawn in the water as an effect in which he gains an intuition of something that is his own doing.”[12] The boy has this impulse to create something for him to enjoy which is “an external realization of himself”[13] It is not enough for him to think about his freedom and his choices; he has the impulse to deliberately create an object that sensuously expresses his self-consciousness, his freedom, and to serve the Spirit.

Since art for Hegel has this specific purpose and derives from the need to reflect our freedom and self-consciousness as a human collective, different criteria would be needed to evaluate art with this conception in mind. When we evaluate fine art, it should not be an individual process in which we determine whether it is beautiful for us. Instead, in Hegel’s view, fine art should be evaluated based on how well it captures the self-consciousness and freedom of the culture in which it was made. “Beautiful art speaks to the mind through the senses by showing the mind its own freedom in a sensuous form.”[14] And as Hegel has told us, that picture of freedom will be distinguished by the historical epoch in which it is located. This goes directly against the more individualistic or formalist interpretations of art, in which historical considerations generally do not have much consequence. In those interpretations, historical details would not matter, because form and taste are universal terms that will judge each work of art on the same basis with the same criteria.

As for the evaluation of genius, which for Kant came from nature and was awakened in those gifted with it through the inspiration of other geniuses, Hegel seems to recognize that to reach “art proper…an inborn, higher talent for art is indispensable.”[15] But he diverges from Kant in that he thinks genius is not as simple as awakening the genius in a gifted person. In addition to this natural talent, the artist must also be spiritual and self-conscious. He must evaluate the needs and Spirit of his era, and respond to these things so as to reflect them in his work. A diligence to his world and to others is thus an additional component that Hegel requires of geniuses.

While originality was important for Kant in determining artistic genius, it would not seem that originality is as important for Hegel, because fine art is not about expressing oneself or one’s genius. Instead it is more socially conscious, and Hegel finds it most important for art to express our freedom and be an image of the Spirit working through us and in the world we create for ourselves.

Since the aim for the genius differs importantly from other theories of art, it follows that the meaning and function of art would differ also for Hegel. He criticizes mimetic theories of art, in which art imitates nature, for being superfluous, since they are merely representations of what we already have in nature. These imitations also are inadequate compared to nature, since they can only give a one-sided, particular depiction, rather than a full picture. Formalist views fall short because they do not pay attention to the historical considerations that Hegel believes changes which forms the truest art should take and what it should depict. Individual expressivist views are incomplete because it remains ultimately subjective. Instead, art must “proceed not from individual genius alone and its subjective psychological needs and powers, but further from the engagement of creative genius with a widely shared and lived conception of freedom,” as Eldridge puts it.[16] Hegel does not like how much choice in subject matter and form is left up to the artistic genius in Kant’s theory of the beautiful, because he believes that artists should pay attention to the inner truths of their culture, and use these to express their culture’s self-consciousness and conception of freedom. “Fine art cannot range in wild unfettered fancy…spiritual interests set firm stopping-places to it for its content.”[17] Art should not be aimless, but is meant to serve spiritual interests. These spiritual interests, for Hegel,

Consist in awakening and vivifying our slumbering feelings, inclinations, and passions of every kind, in filling the heart, in forcing the human being, educated or not, to go through the whole gamut of feelings which the human heart in its inmost and secret recesses can bear, experience, and produce, through what can move and stir the human breast in its depths and manifold possibilities and aspects, and to deliver to feeling and contemplation for its enjoyment whatever the spirit possesses of the essential and lofty in its thinking and in the Idea.[18]

This long but lusciously descriptive sentence of Hegel gives us a good idea of what critics in the Hegelian world should pay attention to as they evaluate works of art. Simply put, Hegel wants us to be able to look at a work of art and, if it is made in our historical epoch, see ourselves in it.

Hegel’s theory tends to leave individuals behind. What is freedom for the group may not be for some individuals, and thus his conception of what art should speak to in each epoch is bound to alienate people who do not understand themselves or their freedom as such. Eldridge points out another fallacy along similar lines, in that Hegel does not account for the fact that “within any culture, conflicts among values remain, and the worth of practices and repertoires remains contested.”[19] In America alone, there are so many demographics and social groups that it would be an impossible task to find a philosophy, religion, or work of art that could express the proper conception of freedom and self-consciousness for everyone.What I suspect might be Hegel’s answer to the problem of excluding certain individuals in his broad-sweeping history is that in the modern era, since art no longer serves its highest vocation and instead serves smaller-scale spiritual interests, it has the opportunity to respond to those who don’t fit within the majority culture. Even so, it seems unfair and inadequate that at some points in history, minorities of any kind seem to be forgotten in Hegel’s framework.


Eldridge, Richard Thomas. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Eldridge, Richard Thomas. “G. W. F. Hegel.” In Aesthetics: The Key Thinkers, edited by Alessandro Giovannelli, 75-85. London: Continuum, 2012.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, T. M. Knox, and Charles Karelis. Hegel’s Introduction to Aesthetics: Being the Introduction to the Berlin Aesthetics Lectures of the 1820s. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Houlgate, Stephen. Hegel and the Arts. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007.

Kant’s Theory of the Beautiful and Art

21 Feb

Today’s Post is of a philosophical nature. Here I have shared an essay I wrote for the seminar I am currently taking on Aesthetics. It tackles Kant’s book Critique of the Power of Judgment, specifically his theory on how we determine what is beautiful. This class so far is very challenging for me as I have little background in philosophy, but it is very rewarding as I have a very smart professor teaching it and I am learning a lot. I am excited to apply what I learn to art history as well, and throughout the class it has already made me think about the implications that the work of these philosophers might have on museums and museum practice, some of which I discuss in this particular paper. Keep in mind for this paper that Kant was writing in the 18th century, and so it is possible his views might have changed if he were alive today. In some ways this seems less likely for Kant than it might be for other older philosophers however, because Kant’s theory claims to be universally true for all of mankind. I reference three images in the paper, which I will show right below this preface paragraph.

hockney painting for paper



To begin the journey of understanding Kant’s paradoxical view on how we find the beautiful, it’s important to first grasp the cognitive procedure by which Kant believes we can determine what is truly beautiful at once for us individually and for all.

Kant believes that our brains’ system of cognition is constructed with two abilities, which Kant calls imagination and understanding.[1] Imagination involves the work of the five senses in creating a sensory memory bank of sorts, where everything we experience is stored. The way that we are able to catalogue and recognize all the objects we experience is through the second cognitive faculty, understanding. Understanding consists of the concepts and rules we have learned through reason. The way in which we use these faculties to make judgments will create different types of judgments in the process, one of which is the necessary condition for making a pure judgment to identify the beautiful. The judgments we make fall into two categories: determinate and indeterminate. It is only when our judgments are indeterminate that we move towards finding beauty.

Determinate judgments are normal judgments that we make in which we use our imagination to create specifically constructed intuitions, or mental images, and then draw on our understanding to grab concepts and rules fueled by reason, empirical observation and experience in order to identify and classify that intuition. For example, a determinate judgment would be “Today is Monday,” because one cannot reasonably dispute what the day of the week is and it is not a subjective question. We know it is Monday because of our learning to use a calendar and tell time. The key aspect about a determinate judgment that makes it not a pure aesthetic judgment of beauty is that it is focused on identifying and recognizing an object for its personal agreeability or utility.

Reflective, or indeterminate, judgments are subjective and based on the harmonious free play of the two cognitive faculties. What creates an indeterminate judgment as opposed to a determinate judgment is when these two faculties are in harmonious free play. Harmonious free play means that at the time we are using these faculties when we encounter an object towards which we want to employ them, we are not in pursuit of knowledge or have some goal in mind. Instead, we are simply considering the object using our imagination to focus the senses and create an intuition about the object, and our understanding faculties to create a judgment of this intuition, without having the goal of labelling the object or gaining knowledge of it.

When we make an aesthetic reflective judgment, we are making a reflective judgment as described above. We are making a judgment about the object based on the intuition of it that we construct, without connecting it to a particular concept. We are fixedly exploring the object using our imagination and judging it freely. The important factor to ensure that we can make a pure judgment is that we do so with disinterestedness. To be disinterested in an object and thus be able to make an aesthetic reflective judgment is to have no care about the object’s existence. This necessary attitude of indifference means that one probably cannot make such a judgment about a painting that his or her loved one made for him or her because there are emotions invested in the person who made it and, by extension, in the object. Nor can we make an aesthetic reflective judgment about an artist whose work we personally enjoy and whom we want to succeed, because in that case we also desire for that object to exist. Both of these cases are what Kant calls aesthetic judgments of sense.[2] But if one reads a poem and has no attachment to the author or the subject matter the poem presents, then that person will be able to make an aesthetic reflective judgment.

Another way that Kant illustrates the difference between interested aesthetic judgments of sense and disinterested aesthetic judgments of reflection is the order in which thoughts and feelings occur with each type of judgment.[3] In the case of interested aesthetic judgments of sense, we immediately feel pleasure or displeasure towards it via the senses delivering the object to our mind, and only after this do we think our judgment of the object: “This is a painting of an ocean and I love the ocean; I think this is a beautiful painting.” With disinterested aesthetic judgments of reflection, the order of thought and feeling is reversed. Because we are disinterested in the object, we cannot have any immediate feelings upon perceiving it, so we think about it first and make a judgment, then we feel pleasure because we engaged in this exercise. Because our emotions do not influence us in this type of judgment, Kant believes that it “belongs to the higher faculty of cognition and indeed to the power of judgment, under whose subjective but nevertheless still universal conditions the representation of the object is subsumed.”[4]

How exactly do these aesthetic reflective judgments help us decide what is beautiful? Kant claims that the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties allows us to determine what is beautiful, and we know that something is beautiful when this pleasure occurs. Judging an object to be beautiful is the exact process that I have discussed above, in which we have engaged in a disinterested harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties with the object. From this exercise we derive a specific, unique pleasure. The harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties produces pleasure because, as Kant puts it, “The consciousness of the merely formal purposiveness in the play of the cognitive powers of the subject in the case of a representation through which an object is given is the pleasure itself, because it contains a determining ground of the activity of the subject with regard to the animation of its cognitive powers, thus an internal causality (which is purposive) with regard to cognition in general, but without being restricted to a particular cognition, hence it contains a mere form of the subjective purposiveness of a representation in an aesthetic judgment.”[5] In other words, the pleasure that occurs from aesthetic reflective judgments, which occur only when the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties is at work, comes from the result of such a judgment: we find purposiveness in a purposeless object. The purposiveness found in purposelessness refers to the harmony that the two cognitive faculties can achieve. Beardsley describes that “It is the experience of formal purposiveness in a representation that evokes the free harmonious play of the two cognitive faculties…the imagination recognizes an expression of itself in the formally satisfying object…in harmony with the lawfulness (but not any particular law) of understanding.”[6]

When we say something is beautiful, we are saying that it has given us that specific experience pleasure based on the disinterested harmonious free play of our cognitive faculties. In other words, when someone asks whether an object is beautiful, “One only wants to know whether the mere representation of the object is accompanied with satisfaction in me, however indifferent I might be with regard to the existence of the object of this representation.”[7] The determination of the beautiful when disinterest is present as opposed to interest lies in “what I make of this representation in myself, not how I depend on the existence of the object.”[8] Cohen and Guyer make note of an important nuance in what it means to say an object is beautiful in the Kantian sense: “One’s apprehension of x as beautiful is not the detection of some property in x by means of a procedure for recognition. It is, rather, the awareness that x prompts some feeling in oneself.[9]

When we depend on the existence of the object in some way, we have interest in it and it is what Kant calls “agreeable” to us. In agreeable things, our pleasure results from what “pleases the senses in sensation.”[10] It not only pleases us and gains our approval, but it gratifies us, and instills in us a desire for more objects like it and an inclination towards it.[11]

In our experience of the morally good, we also have interest in the object which expresses good. Kant defines the good as that “which pleases by means of reason alone, through the mere concept.”[12] Whether the good is good for some use or good in itself, since both involve the concept of an end, we thus have an interest in the object that is good. What distinguishes the good from the beautiful and the agreeable is that in order for us to perceive an object as good, we “must always know what sort of thing the object is supposed to be” by having a concept of it.[13] While agreeable objects are found to be agreeable based purely on sensation, and beautiful objects depend on indeterminate reflection which can lead to possible (but not cemented or specific) concepts, good objects must be directly linked to some concept that we know, and our views on that concept will determine how we judge the object to be good.

In the end, there is no specific difference in how the experience of the beautiful, the agreeable, or the moral feels to us. But the ways in which the pleasure that results from each of these experiences come about are distinct, and are instrumental in producing each specific experience. Another difference between our experience of the beautiful and of the agreeable is the sequence in which we estimate the object and judge the object. The order in which these occur not only affects when exactly we have pleasure during the experience, but also what kind of judgment we can ultimately claim to be making. And the judgment that we can then claim to be making will determine whether we can say it is true for just ourselves or for everyone.

Eldridge succinctly explains that an estimation (beurtheilung) of an object involves considering an object carefully without making any judgment about it: “one focuses one’s attention on the work, exploring its parts or elements and their interrelations, without setting on any single definitive conceptualization of it as wholly explaining what it is.”[14] We are assessing the work before deciding whether it produces pleasure for us and is therefore beautiful. The judgment (urteil) is the decision that we make regarding whether the object is beautiful. It is important for Kant’s theory of pure aesthetic judgments that the estimation of an object precedes one’s pleasure in it because if the pleasurable sensation came first, then we would not be able to make a truly free, disinterested aesthetic judgment. It would only be able have “private validity” according to Kant since it is based on our own sensory experience and would not be a true example of the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties.[15] But the goal for aesthetic judgments in Kant’s vision is for them to be true for everyone. This is only possible if the aesthetic judgment occurs through pure cognition (harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties), because cognition is universally communicable and the products of pure cognition will be true for everyone.[16]

How can a fully subjective reflective aesthetic judgment claim universality at the same time?The Transcendental Deduction of judgments of tastes addresses Kant’s paradoxical claim of intersubjective validity: “the pleasure or subjective purposiveness of the representation for the relation of the cognitive faculties in the judging of a sensible object in general can rightly be expected of everyone.”[17] This means that judgments of taste cannot be anything but subjective because it is the result of the awareness that an object reflects onto oneself. Its reflection onto ourselves is what makes it subjective, but it becomes true for everyone and thus intersubjectively valid because it is based on universally communicable cognition.

Does Kant’s theory hold up in real life? I would say that, while it would be difficult for humans to achieve often, or even at all, that it is the best way to determine what is beautiful. Because aesthetic reflective judgments require so much effort to put aside our personal interests and biases, I think it would be quite difficult for us to make these kind of judgments purely. Depending on the person, this could mean that there are very few objects about which one could make truly aesthetic reflective judgments. Assuming that art museums have the job of collecting and curating beautiful objects, Kant’s theory makes me question the credibility of experts in the arts fields to have such a responsibility. Most likely they have a desire for the arts to continue and prosper, and so they have a stake in every art object’s existence. Does this mean if they can’t make aesthetic reflective judgments, they are not the best people to decide what is truly beautiful and thus belongs in a museum? I think that sometimes we do see this happen in museums when they decide to exhibit certain artworks. Since museums often depend on visitors to both keep their doors open and to stay relevant, curators are often pressured to create exhibitions based on more famous artists than lesser known ones, even if the work of the lesser known ones is more beautiful. Perhaps because I do not have the privilege working in a museum yet and being considered one of the experts, I like that Kant’s theory does not elevate these experts to be the only ones who can define the beautiful as Hume’s theory does. Whereas there are only a handful of people who can define art from Hume’s perspective, everyone can find for themselves what is beautiful if they decide they want to do the work it will take to do so. It perhaps would be easier for certain people to make these judgments, but at least in Kant’s theory the power to decide what is beautiful does not belong to an elite few.

Leaving aside the issue of how difficult these judgments would be to carry out, Kant’s description of nature and art being places where we see purposiveness in something purposeless is a lovely, and I think accurate, idea. When one looks at a painting, it is clear that someone did not randomly put paint on a canvas, and that there was intention and purpose behind it. And yet, it is not clear why we actually need the arrangement of paint on a canvas, for it serves no conceivable function in the world. This leaves its only purpose to be beauty, to be a beautiful object for us to contemplate. Our imagination can go multiple directions with our thoughts or sensations in experiencing the painting, while at the same time recognize that there is no mindlessness occurring here. A David Hockney painting is clearly not a random occurrence, and yet it cannot do our laundry, file our taxes, or pump air into our tires. Thus all that is left for us to do is appreciate it for its sake, an exercise that cannot occur when there is interest in the object (in the Kantian sense) or it is for some practical or moral use.

In conceptual art, which is less about the object itself and more about the idea behind it, I wonder if Kant would see these as less than art and simply as political or philosophical manifestos. For works such as the gelatin silver-print C-Ration by Lorna Simpson, there is a clear purpose to make viewers aware of racist and sexist attitudes still prevalent against black women at the time. Similarly, religious paintings such as Caravaggio’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy also have specific intentions to imbue viewers with certain feelings about Christianity. I would guess, therefore, that Kant would decide that abstract art is the only art about which we can make aesthetic reflective judgments. Some might find Kant’s removal of the option to judge religious, conceptual, or a number of art genres as beautiful problematic.

Finally, Kant believed that it was only nature which we could truly determine to be beautiful, since art, being a human creation using various media, always requires at least some grasping at concepts in order to define the art object based on what it is made out of, which culture it came from, and who made it. Furthermore, he believed we have no interest in nature’s existence, because we take for granted that it will be there tomorrow and so do not feel the need to protect it. Kant’s view is reflective of a world we sadly no longer live in, where environmental destruction based on human development was not nearly as much of a problem as it is now. When we do get to see a beautiful landscape, we will most likely cherish it more than we might have in Kant’s time because such unfettered vistas of nature are increasingly harder to find, and as a society we are much more aware of the possibility that we could lose nature by our own hand.

Painting of the Day

14 Jan

Horace Pippin (1888-1946). Domino Players, 1943. Oil on composition board. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Notes from the book The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making:

The intimate interior setting of Domino Players is characteristic of Pippin. He explored this theme in a series of paintings that shows this kitchen, and a matriarchal figure usually dominates the scene. He drew on memories of his own childhood, of family members and friends at their everyday activities–caring for children, praying, quilting, smoking, playing games–and created a portrait of African-American family life in the era before the Second World War.

Pippin placed two members of his family in the center of activity. The one at the right may represent his mother, Christine, wearing a polka-dotted blouse, while a woman who may be Pippin’s grandmother smokes her pipe and observes the game of dominoes. The dominoes spill toward the family matriarch, a former slave who claimed to have witnessed the hanging of John Brown in 1859. The dominoes build a wall–woman to woman, generation to generation. The boy, perhaps Pippin himself or his younger brother, John, appears lost in contemplation. He is the only male member of this group, placed protectively between two strong women. The cold whites, greys, and blacks of the barren room are complemented by the colors of the quilt and the vibrant reds placed strategically throughout the painting. Visual tension is achieved by the slight tilt of the solid horizontals of the floor and table, even as the strong verticals of the doorway, window frames, and walls reestablish the stability of the picture’s composition and provide a firm vertical support for the figures.

The serenity of the scene and the Sunday evening demeanor are disturbed by the exaggerated size of the sharp open scissors on the blood-red scrap of cloth, the ferocious teethlike flames of the coal fire and even the tongues red flame in the oil lamps. All are presented as disproportionate signs danger as only a child would perceive them.

My comments:

The subject matter of the scene is relaxed and casual on the surface, but, almost like Hopper come to think of it, Pippin changes the picture to give it narrative and emotional depth, a depth which makes viewers aware of the tensions implicit in the scene due to the racial tensions still present in America.

Besides analyzing the symbolism of the painting as the analysis above does quite well, I also enjoy the visual patterns that Pippin created in this painting. The inverse of black and white that takes place between the dominoes and the polka-dot blouse the woman figure on the right side of the table is visually delightful. In fact, the interplay between black and white is a rhythm that carries throughout the composition and leads the eye skillfully to every part of it.

Exhibition Review: “Represent: 200 Years of African-American Art” at the PMA

12 Jan


Moe Booker. Present Futures, 2006. Mixed media and encaustic on wood panel. Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Henry Ossawa Turner. The Annunciation, 1898. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Lorna Simpson. C-Ration, 1991. Gelatin silver print. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Description of the Exhibition from the PMA website:

Represent: 200 Years of African American Art highlights selections from the Museum’s exceptional holdings of African American art and celebrates the publication of a catalogue examining the breadth of these noteworthy collections. With work by renowned artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin, Jacob Lawrence, and Carrie Mae Weems, the exhibition showcases a range of subjects, styles, mediums, and traditions. Since the Museum’s acquisition of Tanner’s painting The Annunciation in 1899, its collections of African American art have grown significantly, especially during the last three decades.

From compelling stories to innovative methods, Represent explores the evolving ways in which African American artists have expressed personal, political, and racial identity. It begins with rare examples of fine and decorative arts made in the 1800s by free and enslaved individuals such as a large storage jar by the accomplished potter David Drake. As access to artistic training and opportunities increased, the relationship between creative expression and identity grew more complex and nuanced. In the early twentieth century, artists like William Henry Johnson and Elizabeth Catlett embraced modernism by representing personal experiences or scenes of daily life in vibrant colors and dynamic compositions.

In the exhibition, abstract paintings and sculpture from the 1960s through the 1980s by Barbara Chase-Riboud, Martin Puryear, and others show a desire to balance cultural and artistic identities, challenging the idea that work by African Americans should be viewed in primarily racial terms. By contrast, many artists working in the 1990s and since, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson among them, have used pictures and text to examine the past and make pointed statements about race. Represent culminates by stepping outside historical narrative to present an array of portraits by several generations of artists, from those active over a century ago to those making work today.

My Review:

The artworks above show the range in the PMA’s collection of African-American art, a small portion of which is on display in the Honickman and Berman galleries from January 10th to April 5th, 2015 as an exhibition titled “Represent: 200 Years of African-American Art.” I say small because the wall text that opens the exhibition reveals that the PMA has about 750 works made by over 200 African-American artists in its collection, and I would estimate that less than 50 of these works are actually included in the exhibition. The fact that the PMA chose to have such a small percentage of their African-American artwork on display when this is the first and only time they have had such an exhibit was my first disappointment with the exhibit. This is not to say that this review will be negative overall, but I do have some other questions about the logistical or organizational choices of the exhibit.

The next aspect of the exhibition that surprised me was its location. Right now, there are no other major special exhibitions occurring at the museum. But it appeared that the museum’s special exhibitions galleries, which are located in an optimal location near the West entrance of the museum to the left of the Grand Staircase, are under construction for their upcoming February exhibition of art from the Japanese Kano school. “Represent” is located in galleries that are on the lower floor in a corner of the museum—directly across from the museum store and down the hall from the museum’s restaurant. I am not one to overanalyze certain observations, and I certainly understand the logistical issues with planning where an exhibit will be located. But for their very first and only African-American art exhibit to be so small, and placed in a far, seldom-travelled section of the museum, it felt to me like the PMA did not seize the opportunity to make this an important and significant exhibit in their building. It makes me wonder whether they have a lot of African-American work in their collection that is not museum-worthy, or whether it so happened that this exhibit would open close to the opening date of the Kano school exhibit and so they had to decide which exhibit would be sacrificed to the lesser gallery. Whatever the case may be for why the exhibit was as small as it was and in the location it was, I do think it lost some of the power it had the potential to wield given its size and placement.

As this introduction alludes, I think the exhibition contained some excellent works, two of which I posted above. It is divided, although not clearly, into four sections, which are both thematic and chronological. The first is called “Early America,” which includes the art made by African-Americans in the colonial era of the United States, during which they were, for the most part, enslaved. These artisans/artists were usually trained by their slaveholders in various media, and what they created was based on these slaveholders’ orders. In this section we saw mostly craftwork, including furniture, silverware, and pottery, including a giant storage jar (it was about waist-high) that was actually signed by the slave, David Drake, who made it, who gave himself the nickname “Dave the Potter.” These pieces, as we would expect, did not allow for their makers’ individual artistic expression to come out, but they are educational in what the slaves were trained to make and reveals that they could become highly skilled craftspeople.

The next section is titled “Imagining Modernity,” which advances in time to the early 1900’s, at which time slavery was abolished and African-Americans had more access to education, but still faced racial prejudice. Many artists, such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, went to Paris to work in order to avoid racism in the United States. Tanner’s contribution to the exhibition is his “The Annunciation,” which the PMA purchased the year after he made it, making it the first African-American artwork to enter the PMA’s collection as well as the second acquisition by the PMA of a contemporary artist’s work. Tanner is one of the most masterful artists on display in this exhibition, and his painting transcends context to achieve timeless, universal appeal. To compare this to another depiction of the Annunciation, the very famous 1333 panel by Simone Martini which has been in every art history textbook I’ve ever read, I think Tanner’s version is much better, especially from a Christian standpoint. Since we only have the Bible to get an idea of what Mary was feeling when she found out she would be the mother of Jesus, I think Tanner did a much better job of capturing the moment as described in the text: the fear, bravery, and responsibility that Mary possessed registers in the figure of Mary’s face in the painting so well. The painting is large, but it feels incredibly intimate, with warm, ambient lighting coming solely from the angel Gabriel’s inherent light, and curtains closing off the space between the back of the composition and the front. It truly is a fantastic work, and it is no wonder they included it in the exhibition.

The next section of the exhibition is titled “Abstract Approaches,” and describes a phase of African-American art in the mid-1900’s when African-Americans had more freedom than previous generations. With this newfound freedom, some artists chose not to focus on their black identity and moved towards abstraction. Somewhat confusingly, as the last section of the exhibit states that it covers art of the 2000’s, this section contains a vibrant 2006 painting by Moe Booker titled “Present Futures.” Made of mixed media and encaustic painted on wood panel, this wildly colorful painting is reminiscent of jazz, Kandinsky, and, to me, the symphony “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin. Like the Tanner, this one has nothing to do with the artist’s race, this painting reminds us African-American artists did not always focus on race in their subject matter, as I find art history textbooks typically portray them.

The last section of the exhibit, titled “Past Made Present,” alludes to the re-reading of race issues and the past’s racist depictions/interpretations of African-Americans through humanizing portraiture and emotional, unsettling paintings and sculpture. “C-Ration,” a 1991 gelatin silver print by Lorna Simpson, is an example of a work in the exhibition that combines these two characterizations. Organizationally I think this section of the exhibition suffers a bit, because on one wall there is a cluster of about 20 to 25 artworks which are mostly portraits; their similarity ends there, however. They are all by different artists of different time periods, and they are all clustered so close together in the way that less significant works, such as sketches or studies, are usually grouped in an exhibition. I think several of the works in this cluster were strong enough to deserve their own space on the wall, but I think this was an unfortunate product of the lack of space in these particular galleries.

Overall, I suppose this exhibit was good because it left me wanting to see more of the museum’s African-American collection, but I think it left something to be desired a bit too much. I loved the diversity of the artists’ work, which ranged from beautiful to upsetting. This made me wonder, especially in the context of a race which sadly has been plagued by trouble, what the role of art should be. Is its primary, or best, purpose to be a beautiful image which adds aesthetic greatness to our human fabric? Or does beauty not matter at all, with art’s function instead being a means to make people think, to shake them from their everyday blindness to real issues? This exhibit allows us to see artists answer that question in myriad ways.

%d bloggers like this: