Review of “Philosophy and Museums: Essays on the Philosophy of Museums”, edited by Victoria S. Harrison, Anna Bergqvist and Gary Kemp

My review of this collection of essays has just been published on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Here’s the link.

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What can analytic philosophy bring to research on art installation?

This is one of the questions I was asked during my job interview for the fellowship funding this research project. It’s a really good question! There is already some literature on site-specific art (e.g. this, this, and this), on installation art (e.g. this, this, and this), and on curatorial activities (e.g. this, this, and this), written by art theorists, art critics, and philosophers working outside the analytic tradition. Why do we need to approach those topics from yet another viewpoint? What do analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art have to offer?

First of all, to understand the relevance of analytic philosophy for a certain discipline or practice we need to clarify what analytic philosophy is. Here you can find an introduction. For a general introduction to analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art see here and here. (Unfortunately, not all my links are to open-access sources). Here are a couple of quotes from a paper by Kendall Walton describing a way of working to which I aspire:

‘Analytic’ philosophers have commonly characterized their endeavor as conceptual analysis. I count myself among those who prefer to understand philosophy as mainly a matter of theory construction. What philosophers do, on this conception, is pretty much what scientists do after the data are in: organizing the data in a per-spicuous manner, devising conceptual structures, constructing theories, to clarify and explain the data. I think that this conception of philosophy applies better than the conceptual analysis one to much historical philosophy, from Plato through Kant, to the ‘system building’ typical of some philosophers in the continental tradition, and, indeed, to much philosophizing by those who claim to be engaged in conceptual analysis [Walton 2007: 151].

Philosophers are in a position, sometimes, to construct theories more nearly from the ground up, and can eliminate vestigial gears and pulleys and other awkwardness. So philosophers may have good reason to revise or replace folk theories, even without introducing new data [Walton 2007: 154].

My advice is to start from the ground up, with careful attention to works of art that interest us and to whatever else turns out, on examination, to bear significant similarities to any of them, and let our theories develop as they will [Walton 2007: 159].  

When discussing the relevance of analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art, both in general and in relation to a specific research topic such as art installation, I think it is relevant to consider: (1) its status as a philosophical discipline; (2) its relationship with research in aesthetics and philosophy of art outside the analytic tradition; (3) its relationship with other disciplines concerned with aesthetic experience and art.

1. The status of analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art within philosophical research

Philosophers can be skeptical towards research in analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art for various reasons. Here are some examples:

  • because they regard aesthetics as the realm of purely subjective taste, which they consider philosophically uninteresting  (A.C. Ribeiro traces this view back to A.J. Ayer here);
  • because they think that artworks are more effectively studied by literary critics, music critics, art critics etc. rather than by philosophers, who are seen as prone to hasty generalizations and woolly theorizing when discussing art (a view put forward e.g. by J.A. Passmore in 1951 here);
  • because they think that research in analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art is parasitic on research conducted in ‘core’ areas of philosophy (such as metaphysics and philosophy of mind) and so it’s not very interesting and/or original (a view described and criticized e.g. by N. Wiltsher here).

Here are some replies to such criticisms:

  • that taste is an entirely subjective matter is not an established truth but a view worthy of philosophical discussion (as A.C. Ribeiro notes);
  • there’s a lot more to analytic aesthetics than the issues of taste and aesthetics judgements (e.g. the aesthetics of everyday objects and everyday life, the relevance of aesthetic experience in shaping the life of human beings), as noted e.g. by Ribeiro and Wiltsher;
  • analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art are not inclined to woolliness and hasty generalization; on the contrary, they developed since the second half of the XX century as a reaction to sloppy theorizing about art and aesthetic experience;
  • analytic aesthetics is not just a sub-field of value theory (as pointed out by K. Walton here); similarly, analytic philosophy of art studies specific art practices and specific artworks, which might present challenges that other objects of philosophical study do not present (as noted e.g. by W. P. Seeley here);
  • reflections on issues in analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art (e.g. on the metaontology of art) can help illuminate broader philosophical issues (e.g. general debates on metaontology) as noted e.g. by W. P. Seeley.

Research on art installation, then, can benefit from analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art, since scholars working within such discipline seek to develop accurate analyses by scrutinizing specific art practices and artworks.

2. The relationship between analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art and other philosophical methodologies of research on art and aesthetic experience

What about the relationship between aesthetics and philosophy of art in the analytic tradition and in other philosophical traditions? What distinguishes the analytic methodology? Is there really a difference?

These are very broad questions, and neither have I answers to them nor is providing such answers a goal of my research. My assumption that there is something like a distinctively analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art, however, relies on observations such as the following: unlike philosophers working in other traditions, philosophers working on art and aesthetic experience from within the analytic tradition are (i) often more interested in understanding what kinds of objects artworks are, rather than what their cultural significance is, or what happens to the subjects experiencing them; (ii) usually skeptical towards extreme relativistic views, which are instead quite popular among e.g. postmodernists; (iii) often more inclined to revise folk theories.

Research on art installation from the analytic perspective, then, is likely to focus on issues that are different from those touched upon philosophers working in other traditions, thus offering a new perspective on such topic.

3. The relationship between analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art and other disciplines focussing on art and aesthetic experience

What about the relationship between analytic aesthetics and philosophy of art and other disciplines concerned with the understanding of artworks and aesthetic experience? As I said above, analytic philosophers study art practices and art objects, and they need to collaborate with specialists from other disciplines to understand them. What can specialists from other disciplines gain from collaborating with analytic philosophers, on the other hand? This is, again, a very broad question that goes beyond the scope of my research. I shall limit myself, then, to say what I think specialists from other disciplines could gain from philosophical research into art installation such as the one I am attempting to produce. First, they could find a clear and most general theory of art installation, on the background of which they could place their own more specific and detail-oriented accomplishments. Second, given that we assess objects based on our notions of what they are (e.g. a tool for cutting is good if it cuts well and is maneuverable), carefully argued definitions of art categories such as the ones I wish to provide should be capable of specifying the parameters under which we are to assess many works of art and artistic activities, thereby providing art specialists from various fields with useful tools for understanding the value of artworks.

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