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Dissanayake, Ellen. Doing Without the Ideology of Art
2011, New Literary History 42: 71–79.
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Abstract: My invited comment on Steven Connor’s essay, “Doing Without Art,” proposes that a fuller understanding of the implications of my notion of “making special”—referred to by Connor in his essay as somewhat relevant to his own position—would expand his view of the human art impulse and allay some of his disaffections. Rather than contributing to aesthetic theory, the ideology of art, my work proposes an ethology of art: it suggests why members of the human species, in all times and places, made and otherwise engaged with the arts (plural). An ethology of art requires a new way of regarding its subject, not philosophically as an entity or essential quality but as a behavior, something that people everywhere “do.” What characterizes all instances of “doing with art,” from prehistory to the present, is making something (a rock surface, face or body, implement, sound, space, place, movement, utterance) special. A summary of the development and ramifications of the concept of “making special”—called “artifying” in my most recent work—answers Connor’s three questions and suggests that placing our modern ideology or ideologies of art in the wider and deeper context of artification enables an understanding of the arts as intrinsic and even necessary to human lives everywhere.

Comment: Dissenayake makes her points clear and brief, and uses the opportunity to present the main elements of her evolutionary theory. This makes this paper not only an interesting voice in the scepticism about the definition of art debate, but also an excellent introduction to her wider work. The main question worth discussing in class is: should we replace definitions of art with an ethology of art? It might also be worth asking whether Dissenayake is right to claim that even the assumption that a theory of art is needed at all is elitist.

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Lopes, Dominic McIver. Beyond Art
2014, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Added by: Simon Fokt

Publisher’s note: This book offers a bold new approach to the philosophy of art. General theories of art don’t work: they can’t deal with problem cases. Instead of trying to define art, we should accept that a work of art is nothing but a work in one of the arts. Lopes’s buck passing theory works well for the avant garde, illuminating its radical provocations.

Comment: Introduction and sections 1-3 are particularly useful in teaching. Lopes looks at the challenges defining art faces and asks what sort of conditions would a definition have to satisfy to be successful and whether a we need a definition of art at all. This is likely to prove quite stimulating, especially considering the focus on hard cases: students often enjoy puzzling over what we should do with controversial works, and are likely to have conflicting intuitions which can lead to a good discussion.

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Lopes, Dominic McIver. Nobody Needs a Theory of Art
2008, Journal of Philosophy 105(3): 109-127.
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Abstract: The question “what is art?” is often said to be venerable and vexing. In fact, the following answer to the question should be obvious: (R) item x is a work of art if and only if x is a work in practice P and P is one of the arts. Yet (R) has appeared so far from obvious that nobody has given it a moment’s thought. The trouble is not that anyone might seriously deny the truth of (R), but rather that they will find it uninformative. After all, the vexing question is pressed upon us by radical changes in art of the avant-garde, and (R) offers no resources to address these changes. With that in mind, here is the case for (R). The challenges posed by the avant-garde are real enough and they need to be addressed, but the vexing question is the wrong question to ask to address them. It does not follow that the question has no good answer. On the contrary, (R) is all the answer we need, if we do not need an answer that addresses the challenges posed by the avant-garde. Moreover, (R) points to a question that we do need answered. So, not only is it true but, in addition, (R) is as informative as we need.

Comment: This text offers a good introduction to contemporary sceptical attitudes towards the classificatory project. The current debate is presented as likely unresolvable and the choice of a theory as largely a matter of opinion. Lopes makes a good case for his title: why should we care about a defining art? The text is full of controversial points and hooks for class discussion.

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Lorand, Ruth. Classifications and the Philosophical Understanding of Art
2002, Journal of Aesthetic Education 36: 78–96.
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Content: Lorand argues against Kivy and others who claim that philosophising about various forms of art needs no theory of art, and suggests that it’s time to resume the inquiry into the nature of art. In fact, any satisfactory theorising about any specific issues (such as characteristics of an art form) must be ‘linked to a higher, more general level that functions as its source for basic suppositions and definitions’ (79, such as a theory of art). Lorand then discusses some reasons why one might renounce the classificatory project, including Weitz’s open concept argument. She introduces a distinction between classificatory definitions and the philosophical question. The former depend on the norms, traditions and beliefs present within a given context, and has been the focus of most theories of art. But it only distracts us from the more worthwhile philosophical question about the (elusive) essence of art. A discussion of the distinction between the classificatory and evaluative uses of ‘art’ follows, with Kant, Mothersill and Dickie at its focus. It leads Lorand to arguing for a ‘Platonic’ approach, one focusing on uncovering art’s essence, without the distraction of classification which can merely uncover ‘current social trends’ (93).

Comment: This text can be useful in three ways. Firstly, it introduces and discusses some anti-essentialist arguments. Secondly, it draws attention to some common characteristics of different definitions – their focus on necessary and sufficient conditions. Finally, it claims that looking for the essence of art is possible and more important from mere classification. All of these can inspire interesting discussions, though it will be worth pointing out that Lorand’s arguments are more controversial than she makes them seem.

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Tillinghast, Lauren. Essence and Anti-Essentialism about Art
2004, The British Journal of Aesthetics 44: 167–83.
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Abstract: I argue that clarity about essence provides the tools both to isolate a distinct concept of art and to see why anti-essentialism is a plausible, though incomplete, doctrine about it. While this concept is not the only concept currently expressed by our word ‘art’, it is an interesting, and might be an important, one. One of the challenges it poses to conceptual analysis is to explain what it is to be better than being good of a thing’s kind, where this extra-goodness is neither a trivial fact nor simply a matter of being a good instance of two different kinds of thing. While anti-essentialism seems to be right about what types of analysis will not work for it, this result only deepens the question of what its proper analysis is.

Comment: This text offers a detailed analysis of anti-essentialist claims. It is quite complex and long, which makes it much more suited for Masters level teaching. For use in undergraduate classes, I recommend limiting it to the first two sections which focus on the problems of anti-essentialism. Those problems will likely be the most interesting discussion point for seminars. It will also be useful to talk about the good-guaranteeing sense of art: what is its importance and how do claims made in its context relate to existing definitions of art?

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