Problems in Aesthetics

PHIL 4320/5320. Ohio University, Spring 2022. Fridays 3:05-5:55pm, Ellis Hall 014.

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Course Description

This course is an advanced introduction to Western philosophical aesthetics. Our discussion will revolve around three interrelated themes: (i) our perception, interpretation, and evaluation of artworks; (ii) the concept of beauty; and (iii) modern and postmodern art.

Upon successful completion of this course, you will be able to:

  1. Explain important philosophical questions discussed in the readings.
  2. Explain different positions one might take in response to these questions.
  3. Think critically about and discuss the questions as well as the proposed positions.

Being an “introduction,” this course will necessarily leave out many important problems, traditions, and approaches in aesthetics, art history, and art criticism. Moreover, in class, we will mostly use the Western visual arts (especially, painting and photography) as a source of examples, for two reasons: these art forms are referred to in the readings; and unlike literary works or films, paintings and photographs are convenient for classroom use because we can quickly see them together.

But the particular selection of topics, readings, and artworks for this course does not imply that other things are less valuable. On the contrary, you are encouraged to explore things not covered in this course, hopefully in light of what we do cover, and you have an opportunity to do so in the form of a research project as described below.

Technology Requirements

Depending on the circumstances, this course may be offered online. If it goes online, you will need to have reliable internet and a computer with audio and video capabilities. Regardless of the mode of delivery, you will need to have Microsoft Word (or equivalent) to do assignments.

Course Policies

Note that some of the policies may not apply to this course because there may not be any relevant assignments.

Assignments and Final Grade

In addition to the assigned readings, the following assignments are required for both the undergraduate and graduate students in this seminar (click links for instructions):

  1. Regular attendance and participation
  2. Post-seminar reflections
  3. Research project (choose one)
    a. A research paper (3000 words)
    b. An annotated bibliography (3000-5000 words)
    c. A practice-based project (portfolio with a statement or reflection of 1000 words)
  4. A 10-min presentation on your research project (to be scheduled in the last three weeks of the semester)

These assignments will count roughly equally toward the final grade.

Required Readings

All readings will be posted on Blackboard, but we will read extended portions of two classic books. In case you prefer to own hard copies, here are the relevant editions:

  • E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. 2nd ed. Princeton, 1961.
  • Mary Mothersill, Beauty Restored. Adams, Bannister, Cox, 1991. Originally published by Oxford University Press in 1984.

Schedule of Topics and Readings

All readings listed are required, and they will be available on Blackboard. You are expected to have done the reading before each class. The approximate number of pages is indicated in the brackets [ ]. Some readings are long, and to read them quickly, first try to read for positions rather than arguments.

Week 1 (1/14): What is Aesthetics? What is Philosophy of Art?

  • Jerrold Levinson, “Philosophical Aesthetics: An Overview” (2003) (pp. 3–20) [17]. Read this or Budd.
  • Malcolm Budd, “Aesthetics” (1998) (all sections; but this one is shorter than Levinson)
  • Carolyn Korsmeyer and Peg Brand Weiser, “Feminist Aesthetics” (2021), Section 1
  • G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (1835), Introduction, Sections 1–2, 5, 8 (pp. 1–3; 22–25; 69–90) [25]

Week 2 (1/21): Artistic Styles and Seeing Artworks

  • E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (1960), Introduction, “Psychology and the Riddle of Style” (pp. 3–30) [27]
  • Richard Wollheim, “Seeing-as, Seeing-in, and Pictorial Representation” (1980) [19]
  • Stephanie Ross, “Style in Art” (2003) (pp. 228–243) [15]

Week 3 (1/28): What is Art? (In particular, what is a painting?)

  • Gombrich, Art and Illusion (1960), Ch. 1, “From Light into Paint” (pp. 35–62) [27]
  • Catharine Abell, “Art: What it Is and Why it Matters” (2012) [20]
    Artists on art:
  • John Constable, Excerpts from “Fourth Lecture on Landscape Painting” (1836) [1]
  • Agnes Martin, “The Untroubled Mind” (1972) [10]
  • Ad Reinhardt, “25 Lines of Words on Art: Statement” (1958), “Art-As-Art” (1962), and “The Black-Square Paintings” (1963) [7]

Week 4 (2/4): Truth in Art

  • Gombrich, Art and Illusion (1960), Ch. 2, “Truth and the Stereotype” (pp. 63–90) [27]
  • John Ruskin, Modern Painters (1843), Vol. 1, Part 2, Sec. 1, Ch. 1 (pp. 133–134), Ch. 2 (pp. 140–148) [9]
  • John Hyman, “Truth and Truthfulness in Painting” (2021) [27]

Week 5 (2/11): Illusion and Painting; Feminist Art History

Week 6 (2/18): Vision in Art; the Innocent Eye; the Gendered Gaze

  • Gombrich, Art and Illusion (1960), Ch. 9, “The Analysis of Vision in Art” (pp. 291–329) [38]
  • Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) [14]
  • Jacques Lacan, “Of the Gaze As Objet Petit a: The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze” (1964) (pp. 67–78) [11]

Week 7 (2/25): Judgments of Taste I: Hume

  • Mary Mothersill, Beauty Restored (1991 [1984]), Preface 1991 (pp. v­–viii); pp. 86–87 (for First Thesis); pp. 164–165 (for Second Thesis); Ch. 7, “Hume: ‘Of the Standard of Taste’” (pp. 177–208) [31]

Week 8 (3/4): Judgments of Taste II: Kant

  • Mothersill, Beauty Restored (1991 [1984]), Ch. 8, “Kant: Three Avoidable Difficulties” (pp. 209–246) [37]

Week 9: Spring Break: 3/6–3/12

Week 10 (3/18): The Concept of Beauty I

  • Mothersill, Beauty Restored (1991 [1984]), Ch. 9, “The Concept of Beauty” (pp. 247–277; skip 267–269) [27]
  • Plotinus, “On Beauty” (Enneads 1.6.1–1.6.3) (3rd century CE) [5]
  • Kant, Critique of Judgment (1790), Sections 1, 2, 34 [5]
    Artists on art:
  • Giorgio de Chirico, Excerpts from “Meditations of a Painter” (1912) and “On Metaphysical Art” (1919) [6]
  • Piet Mondrian, Excerpts from “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art” (1937) [3]
  • Agnes Martin’s piece assigned in Week 3 is also relevant to this week’s topic.

Week 11 (3/25): The Concept of Beauty II

  • Mothersill, Beauty Restored (1991 [1984]), Ch. 11, “The Concept of Beauty: Aesthetic Properties” (pp. 323–366) [43]

Week 12 (4/1): Critique of Modernism

  • Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1935) (pp. 19–42) [23]
  • Theodor W. Adorno, Excerpts from Minima Moralia (1951) [about 20-30 pp]

Week 13 (4/8): Phenomenology

  • Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt” (1945) [16] and “Eye and Mind” (1961) [28]
  • Cynthia Freeland, “Portraits in Painting and Photography” (2007) [14]

Week 14 (4/15): Postmodernism

  • Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939) [8]
  • Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1968) [7] and “From Work to Text” (1971) [11]
  • Sherri Irvin, “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art” (2005) [15]

Week 15 (4/22)


Friday, April 29: Research Project due by the end of the day