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Abell, Catharine, , . Art: What It Is and Why It Matters
2012, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 85: 671–91.
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Content: The first three sections of this paper offer a very useful overview of modern definitions of art. Most major types of definitions are introduced and explained in a succinct way, followed by a discussion of selected objections they face. First, Abell introduces functionalism and discusses its problems with extensional adequacy. Second, procedural theories including Dickie’s institutional and Levinson’s historical definitions are discussed, and criticized for their circularity and inability to account for art’s value. Next, Abell considers two mixed theories, formulated by Robert Stecker and David Davies. She shows how they can overcome the difficulties discussed above, but run into their own problems. Finally, Berys Gaut’s cluster account is introduced and criticized for its circularity and difficulties in determining all sufficiency conditions for being an artwork. In the remainder of the paper Abell focuses on developing her own version of the institutional theory.

Comment: This text can provide the students with an overview of modern definitions of art. Theories are presented in a clear, succinct way, with their main features, strengths and weaknesses identified. The selection of objections discussed, however, is not representative – rather it serves the aim of developing Abell’s own definition. The later sections of the text are excellent, but address much more complex issues and are significantly less accessible for undergraduate students. They might be used in Masters level teaching or as advanced further reading on the institutional definition.

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Brand, Peg Zeglin, , . Glaring Omissions in Traditional Theories of Art
2000, in Theories of Art Today, ed. by Noel Carroll (London: The University of Wisconsin Press)
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Abstract: I investigate the role of feminist theorizing in relation to traditionally-based aesthetics. Feminist artworks have arisen within the context of a patriarchal Artworld dominated for thousands of years by male artists, critics, theorists, and philosophers. I look at the history of that context as it impacts philosophical theorizing by pinpointing the narrow range of the paradigms used in defining “art.” I test the plausibility of Danto’s After the End of Art vision of a post-historical, pluralistic future in which “anything goes,” a future that unfortunately rests upon the same outdated foundation as the concept “art.”.

Comment: This text offers an overview of the feminist critique of the classificatory project. It assumes some basic knowledge and is best used after the main modern theories of art have been introduced. The pointed critique and clearly stated suggestions for constructing unbiased theories, make it excellent at inspiring a critical discussion on the subject of universalism and discrimination in both art practice and theory. Perhaps more importantly, the argument offered and the long lists of female artists and art theorists which support it, can have an empowering and validating role to many female students.

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Eaton, Marcia Muelder, , . A Sustainable Definition of “Art”
2000, in Theories of Art Today, ed. by Noel Carroll (London: The University of Wisconsin Press)
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Content: Eaton begins with some remarks on the practical need for classification of art and proceeds to present and improve her definition. Her focus is not on specific properties of artworks, but on the fact that they possess properties which within a given culture are considered worth attending to. The modifications made to the theory follow a realisation of Western-centric bias embedded in the original formulation, and the discussion explicitly aims to work towards a definition which acknowledges the cultural differences in art production and appreciation. Eaton moves on to discuss Danto’s and Cohen’s claims that art cannot be defined and points out some Western-centric aspects of their arguments. The paper ends with an overview of what it is for art and its definition to be sustainable.

Comment: Western-centric bias in art classification is explicitly addressed in the article and efforts are made to account for the cultural variations in attitudes to and classification of art. This can offer a powerful motivation for the students to seek similar biases in other definitions and ask whether they entail a preferential treatment of Western art.

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Eaton, Marcia Muelder, , . Art, Artifacts, and Intentions
1969, American Philosophical Quarterly 6(2): 165 – 169
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Content: The paper is written in support of the claim that artworks have to be artefacts. In a series of thought experiments involving driftwood and poems typed by monkeys, Eaton argues that linguistic objects such as warnings or poems have to result from intentional actions. She supports this argument by distinguishing linguistic objects from linguistic actions. To understand an utterance, it is necessary to not only explicate the meaning of the words used, but also to interpret the linguistic action which resulted in it. Literary works require interpretation, and interpretation requires reference to the linguistic actions of the work’s creator – their intentions. So literary works need to result from intentional actions, i.e. be artefacts. Similarly, artworks are objects of interpretation and thus must be artefacts.

Comment: The artefactuality requirement is involved in various definitions of art and thus Eaton’s paper can be used in many contexts. With its narrow topic and a lack of introduction to any particular definitions, in the context of undergraduate teaching it remains a rather specialised reading. It is best used as a further reading, or as a required reading in higher level modules which already introduced more general works on art classification.

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Freeland, Cynthia, , . But is it Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory
2001, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Publisher’s note: From Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes to provocative dung-splattered madonnas, in today’s art world many strange, even shocking, things are put on display. This often leads exasperated viewers to exclaim–is this really art? In this invaluable primer on aesthetics, Freeland explains why innovation and controversy are so highly valued in art, weaving together philosophy and art theory with many engrossing examples. Writing clearly and perceptively, she explores the cultural meanings of art in different contexts, and highlights the continuities of tradition that stretch from modern often sensational works, back to the ancient halls of the Parthenon, to the medieval cathedral of Chartres, and to African nkisi nkondi fetish statues. She explores the difficulties of interpretation, examines recent scientific research into the ways the brain perceives art, and looks to the still-emerging worlds of art on the web, video art, art museum CD-ROMS, and much more. She also guides us through the various theorists of art, from Aristotle and Kant to Baudrillard. Throughout this nuanced account of theories, artists, and works, Freeland provides us with a rich understanding of how cultural significance is captured in a physical medium, and why challenging our perceptions is, and always has been, central to the whole endeavor. It is instructive to recall that Henri Matisse himself was originally derided as a “wild beast.” To horrified critics, his bold colors and distorted forms were outrageous. A century later, what was once shocking is now considered beautiful. And that, writes Freeland, is art.

Comment: Chapters 2,3 and 5 of But is it art? can serve as a good basic introduction to art theory. The book is written in a light, narrative style and does not focus on the details of particular theories; instead, it is arranged in a useful historical narrative which presents theories in their contexts, showing the types of art they were inspired by. This text is best used in introductory teaching, as a background reading, or as a pre-read for higher level courses where it should be followed by more focused and specialised texts.

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Lopes, Dominic McIver, , . Art Without “Art”
2007, British Journal of Aesthetics 47(1): 1-15.
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Abstract: Some argue that there is no art in some non-Western cultures because members of those cultures have no concept of art. Others argue that members of some non-Western cultures have concepts of art because they have art. Both arguments assume that if there is art in a given culture, then some members of the culture have a concept of art. There are reasons to think that this assumption is false; and if it is false, there are lessons to learn for cross-cultural studies of art both in anthropology and philosophy.

Comment: Lopes’ light and approachable writing style makes this paper very well suited for undergraduate teaching. It is an excellent study in philosophical method: the structure of all arguments is very clear, the challenged premises are individuated and the requirements for challenging them are spelled out in detail. One major advantage of the text is the way in which it exposes the Western-centric biases present in our views on non-Western art. Various problematic historical and current attitudes are mentioned and discussed, including the division between the West and the rest, paternalism, etc.

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Lopes, Dominic McIver, , . Beyond Art
2014, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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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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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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Mikkola, Mari, , . Pornography, Art and Porno-Art
2013, in Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography, ed. by Hans Maes (London: Palgrave Macmillan)
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Abstract: Philosophers involved in the ‘porn-or-art’ debates standardly assume that pornography is centrally about sexual arousal, while art is about something else. I argue against this assumption and for the view that there is no single thing that pornography (or art) ‘is about’. This suggests that there is no prima facie reason for claiming that some x cannot be both pornography and art. I further go on to develop an understanding of (what I call) ‘porno-art’ – a wholly new kind of thing developing from the extant categories of pornography and art, but still distinct and separate from them.

Comment: This text can be used to introduce parts of the debate on art and pornography. The criticism it offers is interesting particularly because it focuses on non-mainstream and feminist pornography, and because it introduces a more nuanced analysis of what can be the aims of pornographers. The text can further serve a validating role for female students who might be interested to read about the existence and value of feminist pornography. Further, Mikkola’s use of Amie Thomasson’s work on artefactual kinds can serve as a good excuse to promote Thomasson’s work in class.

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Monseré, Annelies, , . Non-Western Art and the Concept of Art: Can Cluster Theories of Art Account for the Universality of Art?
2012, Estetika 49(2): 148-165.
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Abstract: This essay seeks to demonstrate that there are no compelling reasons to exclude non-Western artefacts from the domain of art. Any theory of art must therefore account for the universality of the concept of art. It cannot simply start from ‘our’ art traditions and extend these conceptions to other cultures, since this would imply cultural appropriation, nor can it resolve the matter simply by formulating separate criteria for non-Western art, since this would imply that there is no unity in the concept of art. At first sight, cluster theories of art seem capable of accounting for the universality of art since they (can) start from a broad cross-cultural range of artworks and nowhere seem to extend one conception of art to other conceptions. Yet cluster theories remain unsatisfactory, because they can neither avoid misapplication of the proposed criteria, nor clarify the unity in the concept of art.

Comment: Due to the focused character of this paper it is best used as a further reading, or a core reading in courses focusing on cluster theories or non-Western art. The first part offers an interesting discussion of the requirements which a successful theory of art should meet: it should be able to account for the cultural diversity of art. The critique of cluster accounts offered in the second part of the paper focuses on their Western-centric character. It can be useful to discuss whether they could be modified in ways which would allow them to stand against Monseré’s criticism, or whether it is in fact at all possible to formulate a definition which will be flexible enough to account for arts of all cultures, yet general enough to capture ‘art’ as a unified concept.

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Patridge, Stephanie, , . Exclusivism and Evaluation: Art, Erotica and Pornography
2013, in Pornographic Art and the Aesthetics of Pornography, ed. by Hans Maes (London: Palgrave Macmillan).
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Content: Patridge discusses and rejects some of the main arguments for the exclusivist thesis that no pornography can be art: Levinson’s, Mag Uidhir’s, and one based on Rea’s definition of pornography. In doing so, she offers a useful overview of some other arguments already used against those authors. This leads her to conclude that at least some pornography can be art. A normative question follows: should we treat pornography as art? Given the high cultural status of art, and the often unethical nature of pornography, doing so might lead us to promoting unethical attitudes. She finds such treatment too unselective: at least some pornography isn’t morally problematic (and some of it can actually be morally laudable), while much of art, including erotic art, definitely is. But consumption of pornography cannot be taken out of our paternalistic and sexist cultural context. As most pornography is inegalitarian and expresses (and possibly promotes) harmful attitudes towards women, enjoying it constitutes a moral flaw. This is true even if the consumer is never inspired to actually harm women – in those cases enjoyment of pornography constitutes moral obliviousness, a ‘failure of sensitivity and solidarity with the victims of such imagery’ (54) similar to taking enjoyment in racist jokes.

Comment: This text offers a good and brief overview of the main points in the art and pornography debate. This makes it a good ‘one-stop-shop’ for classes which do not wish to look at it more closely. Alternatively, it can be used as an introduction to the topic and followed by some more specific papers. It also engages the normative question and offers a discussion of moral issues related to pornography. This will likely prove to be a very interesting point for class discussions.

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Rand, Ayn, , . The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature
1969, New York, World Pub. Co.
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Publisher’s note: In this beautifully written and brilliantly reasoned book, Ayn Rand throws a new light on the nature of art and its purpose in human life. Once again Miss Rand eloquently demonstrates her refusal to let popular catchwords and conventional ideas stand between her and the truth as she has discovered it. The Romantic Manifesto takes its place beside The Fountainhead as one of the most important achievements of our time.

Comment: Teaching this text might be quite challenging, as the theory proposed is very revisionist. The text can be inspiring in two ways. Firstly, it can encourage a discussion on the status of the avant-garde and most abstract art forms – some students will likely share the sentiment that many such works are not art. Second, Rand’s definition has clear normative undertones: it is not only about what art is, but about what art is for and what its purpose should be. It might be instructive to use her text to inspire a discussion on whether we should expect definitions of art to cover these points.

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Saw, Ruth, , . What Is a “Work of Art”?
1961, Philosophy, 36: 18–29.
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Abstract: This examination of the concept “work of art” has been prompted by the desire to find a starting point for aesthetic inquiry which, to begin with at any rate, will arouse no dispute. A claim for general agreement such as Clive Bell’s: “The starting point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a pecular emotion”, is countered by I. A. Richards’s “the phantom aesthetic state”, and any attempt to claim “beauty” as the central concept is straightway confused by the varied contexts in which “beauty” and “beautiful” may function. We hear much more often of a beautiful stroke in cricket than in painting, and many of our moral judgments have an aesthetic flavour. An action may be bold, dashing, mean, underhanded, unimaginative, cringing, fine, as well as right or wrong. Aesthetic adjectives and adverbs may occur in any context, and part of our job is to separate out the various uses and establish their inter-relationships.

Comment: The text is written in an approachable and somewhat digressive narrative, which makes it a pleasant read, but might require the lecturer to provide the students with some reading guidance. The classificatory account proposed by Saw is rather general – discussing it might be instructive in helping the students understand what sort of conditions are likely to be successful in a definition. The claim which can inspire most class discussion concerns the distinction between the qualities of works which make them art in the classificatory sense, from the qualities which are subject of appraisal.

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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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van Brabant, Petra, , Prinz, Jesse. Why Do Porn Films Suck?
2012, in Art and Pornography: Philosophical Essays, ed. by Hans Maes and Jerrold Levinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
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Content: The authors present ‘the paradox of porn’: pornography seems to score very highly on various evaluative criteria which make art good (e.g. ability to elicit strong emotions), and has features similar to great art (e.g. ‘Brechtian’ acting, idealisation of the human body), yet is rarely consider art. They proceed to discuss some arguments for the exclusivist thesis, suggesting that they ‘reflect a limited knowledge of or experience with pornography’ (168). A review of various types of non-mainstream porn leads them to claim that the division between pornography and art is a false dichotomy. Section 3 revisits the paradox, offering an analysis of various reasons which could lead to so little porn being (considered) art. After rejecting most of the common arguments, the authors suggest that a great majority of porn is not art for purely contingent reasons: very few pornographers even try to pursue that possibility. But pornography has the potential to be great art, and section 4 explores the ways in which it could.

Comment: This text is a fairly easy and a very entertaining read, and is presented in a form of an intriguing and unexpected paradox. This makes it an excellent introductory reading which can really interest students in the subject. It also paints a very varied and diverse picture of pornography, reaching far beyond the mainstream images most often discussed in the literature, and likely best known to students.

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