UW-Milwaukee ART 100 - Aesthetic Theories and Philosophical Questions-1

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When we begin to think about art-its origins, meaning, significance, and rolein society-we raise questions that have been asked for centuries and acrosscultures. Because the world, human interests, and art change over time, thenature of these questions has varied in subtle ways, as have the responses.Even so, an instructive exercise is to note how our own beliefs and those of ourstudents correspond to the theories put forward throughout history.This chapter first provides an overview of theoretical perspectives aboutart and our experiences with it. Some useful distinctions are then made forteachers identifying philosophical questions and helping their students also torecognize them.1718Aesthetic TheoriesTo engage students in philosophical inquiry aboutart, teachers need not be familiar with all facets ofaesthetic theories. Indeed, teachers who have noknowledge of the history of aesthetics may involvetheir students in philosophical inquiry. However,encouraging students to see that their views are notnecessarily unique, and that others who have heldsimilar beliefs have written them down to be studiedand reflected on, is useful instruction. This also aidsstudents in understanding their connections to others;they come to know that they are part of an ongoingdialogue among people, over time, who have thoughtabout art and their responses to it. Teachers who arefamiliar with various aesthetic perspectives can betterplan for philosophical inquiry within the curriculum.Dialogues will be richer to the extent that teachersare able to see student comments in light of thoseoffered by others. As they explore themes, topics,and questions for philosophical focus, teachers candraw on their increased understanding of the com-plexities involved, the related issues and questions,and the various positions that have been taken withrespect to them, in order to design units, lessons,and activities.What Is a Theory?A theory is an attempt to explain a certain set ofphenomena or a single phenomenon. The physicistwho explains why a ball will bounce when thrownagainst a hard surface, why the distance it bounceswill depend in part on the hardness or softness ofthe surface, and why some balls bounce farther thanothers when thrown against hard or soft surfaces isproviding a theory. Like scientific theories, aesthetictheories are also attempts to explain phenomena; inparticular, the human experiences, the range ofobjects, and the varied events associated with beautyand art.Often, in attempts to address philosophical ques-tions about art, explanations are based on broaderphilosophical views about the world and our place init. Theories of art sometimes can be seen as part ofbroader theoretical frameworks. Plato, for example,proposed a theory of art that was part of a largerphilosophical view that included theories of reality,truth, knowledge, human nature, and society. Otherphilosophical positions about art can similarly beplaced within larger frameworks. This is also truewith those of us who are not philosophers, as such.We can often identify beliefs about art that are con-sistent with beliefs about other important issues inthe world.A Word about CategoriesAn artwork is relational: it always exists in relation toother things, people, or events. Someone makes theartwork, so the artwork always stands in some kindof relationship with the art-maker. An artwork ismade in a certain time and place, when certain ideasare prominent within the culture. An artwork is alsoresponded to in a certain time and place, within cer-tain ideological contexts. Interestingly, the context inwhich an artwork is made is not always the contextin which it is experienced. Responders vary.Individuals and groups change, as do the circum-stances under which these individuals or groupsrespond to art. When we offer explanations aboutart and its significance, we do so with assumptionsabout artworks in relation to makers, perceivers, andthe contexts in which artworks are made and/or per-ceived. One way in which aesthetic theories differfrom one another is in the degree of emphasisplaced upon these relationships.Chapter 2Aesthetic theories can be comprehensive or limited.The focus of an aesthetic theory might be limited tothe notion of the creative process in considering therelationship between the maker and art object, forexample. A more comprehensive aesthetic theorymight begin with the relationship between themaker and the art object, but include implicationsfor the other relationships based upon this view.When teachers are familiar with different theo-retical positions, they may wish to draw on them foruse as starting points for discussions or as models forthe development of points of view. The categories ofaesthetic theories outlined below are easily grasped,and students can be encouraged to consider howand in what ways their own beliefs correspond tothem. As with most category systems, a particularbelief may fall into more than one category, or cate-gories may overlap. Being familiar with types oftheories is not so that we might pigeonhole a state-ment or belief. Rather, the knowledge helps studentsand teachers generally organize their own thoughtsabout art and what others have said or written.Theories and Our Responses to ArtworksMost people have beliefs associated with makingand responding to art. When making judgments oroffering interpretations about works of art, peopletend to rely on their own set of beliefs about art.These beliefs often suggest one or more traditionaltheories of art.2.1 Anonymous, Elvis Presley, undated. Paint, velvet,28 x 39” (77 x 99 cm). Courtesy Jennifer Heath. Photo:Caroline Hinkley.Elvis on VelvetBlack-velvet paintings often depict such subjects ascowboys, clowns, leopards, tigers, and prayinghands, and are rarely displayed in art galleries ormuseums. One of the most common subjects is ElvisPresley. Student responses to one Elvis painting onAesthetic Theories and Philosophical QuestionsIn the mid-nineteenth century inEngland, wealthy young women wereexpected to be accomplished in theart of painting on velvet, which wasconsidered part of a cultured hobby. In the 1930s, Mexican-based compa-nies began mass-producing black-velvet paintings. One Mexican firm currently employs asmall staff of painters. Each paintermakes about ten paintings a day; thefirm turns out about 3,000 paintingsa week. The subjects of black-velvet paintingsdepend on what is popular. A paintingmight depict unicorns, Clint Eastwood,Michael

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