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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, , . 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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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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