Aesthetics: Art and Anti-Art

We present below the outline of this course at City Lit.  It looks not unchallenging–we shall see…

Kant (1724-1804) wrote three books with’critique’in the title: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). His central problem is to explain our ability to act according to a moral assessment of a way of life. In short, how is enlightenment possible? The first Critique is a study of the limits of knowledge. The second is a study of the intelligibility of moral judgments. The third is a study of the relationship between science and morality. Oddly, Kant devotes the first part of the third Critique to what he calls pure aesthetic judgments. The influence of his analysis of them – of his ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’ – extends well beyond the limits of academic philosophy.

In making our basic assumptions about art and beauty explicit, Kant sets some central problems not only for philosophical aesthetics, but also for the sociology and anthropology of art. Accordingly, we are going to be considering the ideas of four theorists: the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), the critical theorist Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) and the anthropologist Alfred Gell (1945-1997). All of them have used Kant to clarify their aims. So we need to begin with the basics: Kant’s
analysis of our ways of talking about objects of taste.

21 April

Unlike a person’s reasons for doing a course on something else, your reasons for doing a course on aesthetics are examples of what we’ll be talking about. This is bound to be confusing at times.

28 April

Kant draws a crucial distinction between agreeableness and beauty. To claim that an object is agreeable is just to claim that it gives me pleasure. To claim that an object is beautiful is to claim that it ought to give me pleasure
(regardless of whether it actually does). The point of Kant’s ‘critique’ of aesthetic judgment is to make sense of the distinction.

5 May

Kant regards the pleasure of aesthetic reflection as a kind of satisfaction. An object gives us pleasure if it allows us to do something we want to do. And a beautiful object gives us pleasure. The question, then, is what a beautiful allows us to do. Kant’s basic answer is that it allows us to exercise our imagination unrestricted by rules.

12 May

Kant’s aesthetics anticipates discussion in twentieth-century philosophy of the problem of practical understanding. The problem he sets himself is to explain the idea of an indeterminate norm of taste. It anticipates the problem
of Wittgenstein’s famous discussion of rules and rule-following.

19 May

Our tendency to regard to aesthetic judgments as merely subjective may be due to a misconception of the relationship between thought and language. Heidegger denies that the subject is first of all a kind of spectator and insists on the primacy of practical activity. His analysis of ‘being-inthe-world’ lays the ground for a different way of thinking about aesthetic judgments.

26 May

Gadamer denies that the objectivity of scientific method is the only kind there is. In the popular imagination, science puts everything to test. lt also seems to be the opposite of aesthetic reflection. There is no science of beauty. But there may still be another kind of objectivity, the objectivity of interpretations
of works of art.

2 June

Some of Adorno’s readers have accused him of elitism. He draws a distinction between authentic ad and the products of the culture industry. Authentic art reveals the truth about society. It does so not by representing
society, but by being impossible to represent. Unlike the products of the culture industry, it helps us think the unthinkable about the modern world.

9 June

There is culture – in the anthropological sense of the word – wherever there are human beings. There is as much of it in the practices of a so-called primitive society as there is in our own, and as much at a performance of
stand up comedy as there is at a performance of Swan Lake. This makes cultural refinement a possible topic of anthropological investigation.

16 June

Bourdieu takes aesthetics out of the hands of philosophers and puts it into the hands of sociologists. He offers “a scientific answer to the old questions of Kant’s critique of judgment, by seeking in the structure of the social
classes the basis of systems of classification which structure our perception of the social world and designate the objects of aesthetic enjoyment.”

23 June

Anthropologists have struggled to make sense of the idea of ethnographic art. Are museum exhibits artworks if, for the members of a so-called primitive society, there is no equivalent of our category of art? Gell reverses the
problem. Instead of contemplating the artefacts of an exotic culture as artworks, he considers uses to which artworks are put. His central idea is that artworks are agents.

30 June

In your opinion, is John Cage’s 4’33” worth taking seriously? ls it a piece of
music? ls it a work of art? ls it (or has a performance of it ever been)

7 July


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