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What, After All, Is a Work of Art?: Lectures in the Philosophy of Art

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Joseph Margolis

Extending his well-known investigations into the nature and logic of art and history in the cultural world, Joseph Margolis here offers a sustained account of how selves and the cultural phenomena they generate (language, history, action, art) can be … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Joseph Margolis
Publisher: Penn State University Press
1 review about What, After All, Is a Work of Art?: Lectures...

Understand the question what is art

  • May 1, 2009
I read this book for a graduate seminar on the philosophy of art. This is an excellent text to get a general idea of the vast field of philosophy of art. Aesthetics = philosophy of Art, thinking about art. Originally, aesthetics just meant "sense experience," and had nothing to do with art. A certain theory of art came to co-opt this word. So, much of modern philosophy of art turned more to the subject and away from the object because modern science did such to convince us that the objective world could be understood as a precise matter of mathematical physics. This idea became so impressive that people were making claims about art or ethics similar to science, that we can't make any objective claims about the world, we are simply making claims about human beliefs. So, the turn to the subject becomes common because of the success of modern science it co-opted the discussion of objective nature. We say things about art, but not all are true. The Ancient Greeks had absolute beliefs about art like "beauty."

He finds that how we engage art today is different then how the ancient Greeks did, art was embedded in a cultural context for them. Art was not in museums or in dance halls. Art is in a special zone of experience today in museums, etc. Tragedy for Greeks was part of their politics and religion, sculpture and painting the same way. Music until recently, (after the enlightenment) was for religion or some kind of official function.

Philosophy tries to come up with theories about art; it may be a fool's errand. A set of principles that define and illuminates or explains the full measure of art is probably not attainable. However, just because a theory is wrong doesn't mean it has no value, we can draw import from all of them. He asks, can art even satisfy necessary or sufficient conditions? One will always find exceptions.

A "Necessary condition" is a condition that must be present in order to account for the subject in question, i.e., all art must have X. "Sufficient conditions" are considered to being all that is needed to be in account for the subject in question. Another word a complete sufficient condition means you have captured all that you need to account for. An example of a necessary condition and necessary conditions need not be sufficient conditions, so for instance a necessary condition for "being a bachelor is being a male," but it is not a sufficient condition because you have to have an "unmarried male" in order for it to be a sufficient condition for being a "bachelor." So both "unmarried and male" are necessary conditions, they both must be present in order to account for "bachelorhood," but neither one alone is a sufficient condition because it is not enough. So, when we are trying to define art and one finds some necessary conditions like some kind of "human intervention" that is a necessary condition, but maybe it is a sufficient condition if we want to understand or distinguish between a baseball player digging into the batters box, which is intervention and human manipulation but do we want to call making a divot in the batters box art? Anything having X is art. Relevant condition is useful for art. It is really not necessary to have necessary or sufficient condition for art. A relevant condition is like "beauty." X is significant for art, but not necessary or sufficient.

Terms for knowledge- These are hard to satisfy in the field of art. Therefore, an objective truth is something that is independent of human beliefs, interests, and desires. Subjective truth is something that is dependent on human beliefs, interests, and desires. Subjectivism-Knowledge, meaning, or truth in art is only function of individual beliefs, interests, and desires. Hermeneutics- neither independent objectivity nor independent subjectivity; a circular relation between artists, artworks, and art world (audience). All three work together.

He shows how "traditional art theories try to give necessary and sufficient conditions.

Imitation- means it copies something in the natural world. Art refers to some objective reality outside the mind and artwork. (Plato, Aristotle). Sometimes the imitation theory is also known as the "representational art theory" because the artwork represented something in the world but is not a simplistic idea of copying. The art forms that are most representational are representational sculpture, painting, and drama. The background and implications of the imitation theory first originated in ancient Greece. The imitation theory is the traditional theory that held sway with artists and philosophers up into the eighteenth century Romantic period in Europe. In order for one to fully grasp the meaning of the imitation theory, it is necessary to understand the nuanced meaning of the Greek word for imitation. The Greek word for imitation is mimçsis; thus, art is the imitation of nature for the Greeks. However, mimçsis is a very complex word with many nuanced meanings. It can also mean a representational copy. Plato uses it in speaking of painting. For example, if a Greek painter painted a bird that looked bird like, that would be a sense of mimçsis. Aristotle says art is an imitation of nature, but not just "copying" it. Aristotle does not mean that when art does what it does it reproduces a natural thing. Rather, what Aristotle means is that art impersonates the power of nature to produce something. Human art does something along the lines of what nature does which is very different. Nature produces a tree from out of its power of generation without any intervention from nature, a builder produces a house out of materials which requires the intervention of an agent; however, Aristotle sees no fundamental bright line between those two examples.

The "Expression theory" refers to something going on in the human mind. Art refers to some subjective reality of the human mind, such as ideas, feelings, and cognitive faculties. (Kant, Schopenhauer). The expression theory is the prime competitor to the imitation theory. The expression theory is a modern phenomenon that turns to the subject. This theory became prevalent with the rise of the Romanticism movement of the nineteenth century. With the expression theory--a shift takes place from the objective outer world of the imitation theory to perception of the mind the subject of the expression theory. Expression theorists expect artworks will produce certain human emotions in the audience. Thus, the expression theory has a certain power in focusing on the mind of both the creator and the audience. Expression theorists argue that the theory has a certain power in being able to articulate the communicative and educative power of the mind.

For example, the artist has an experience that the rest of us have not noticed. Then the artist tries to express this experience in the artwork, which she hopes will transmit to the audience so they can share the artist's experience. The idea in the expression theory that artworks have an educative power is central to Robin Collingwood's theory. The whole idea is that the artist is some kind of educator and the artwork becomes some kind of educational vehicle for people. Of course, art can have so much power in this regard, as in the case of Shakespearean tragedies like Macbeth. Thus, the expression theory gives artwork a new importance, especially in the medium of the written word, since it purports that artworks like literature are something we can learn from that we cannot do any other way.

Contemporary Art Theory
The "Historical artworld," Art involves an interrelated complex of artists, artwork, audience, artworld/institutions. All these work in concert with each other, and changes through history adds even more fluidity. This complex changes through history, reflecting a tension between normalcy and creativity (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer).

The features and significance of the historical artworld theory, which more properly should be termed a "notion," is that it does not "locate" art in any one of the four traditional factors of artist, artwork, audience, and artworld institutions that people have traditionally examined to define what art is. The historical artworld notion expands beyond the traditional four factors and takes into account history, and the tension between creativity and normalcy. Thus, the historical artworld notion looks at art through a more broad interpretation then the imitation and expression theories do, by adding history and the tension between creativity and normalcy as well. Thus, the historical artworld notion is better at explaining the fluid relationships between the various facets involved in art. The idea is that it uses "hermeneutics" which means "interpretations" that are in Martin Heidegger's words more "world disclosive." Therefore, the historical artworld notion tends to be less dogmatic than a theory and really seeks to serve as a guidepost for understanding art.

One of the most significant features of the historical artworld notion, unlike the imitation and expression theories, is that as Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer argue, the theory of hermeneutics purports that it is impossible to approach anything independent of historical influences that have already shaped us and therefore, mold how it is we would approach anything. There are already operating influences in how we regard anything in the world, and art would be included in that. By contrast, the imitation theory is too "narrow" in its "accepted rules" of art because it only seeks to imitate objects in the world and disregard the importance of historical influence in creating artworks. One of the ways to understand this is by examining child development. Every adult has been a child, and every child has been shaped by cultural influences through all sorts of ways, education, rearing, etc. In other words, any human self will always be equipped with ways of seeing; therefore, there is no such thing as coming to see something as all by itself. Thus, when we approach a work of art, before we even engage it we are already equipped with inheritances from our tradition and our culture that come to us by way of education and other kinds of influences. No engagement with a work of art is a blank slate-- we are not a tabula rasa. For example, in the case of Greek tragedy, we would have to know what the historical circumstances were and what it was like for the work to be performed at that time. Therefore, any approach to art always carries the art history with it, because historical influences are always shaping how we begin to see anything.

I recommend this work for anyone interested in philosophy, philosophy of art.

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