Philosophy of Art

The philosophy of art is the study of the nature of art. It includes concepts such as interpretation, representation, expression and form. Philosophy of art is closely related to aesthetics, which is the philosophical study of beauty and taste.

One problem about interpretation of art is the question about what factors should guide efforts of interpretation. At one extreme is the view known as isolationism. According to this view, knowledge of the artist's biography, historical background and other factors is not relevant to an appreciation of a work of art. Such knowledge is also usually harmful because it tends to substitute a recital of these factors for the more difficult attempt to understand the work of art itself.

If a recipient cannot understand a work of art on first acquaintance, he or she should read (or hear, or view,) it again and again. The way to maximize appreciation of a work of art is constant re-exposure to it, so that one is totally absorbed and permeated by it.

Three items should be considered in the context of every work of art. The first item is the genesis of the work of art, which comprises all of the artist's mental states in the creation of the work. This item also includes the artist's intention with regard to the work and the factors that led to these states of mind. The second item is the artifact, or the work of art, which is an object or thing made by the artist and is publicly available to be viewed by the audience. The third item includes the impact of the work of art upon the audience.

Arts can be classified in a number of ways, including by their purpose, their effects or their intentions. However, the most usual and the most fundamental method for the classification of arts is by their medium. Visual arts include two-dimensional visual arts, such as drawing and painting, as well as three-dimensional visual arts, such as sculpture and architecture. Auditory arts include all forms of music, excluding song, opera and arts combining music with literature. Verbal art includes the art of literature, which is appreciated almost exclusively thanks to knowledge of the word meanings. Mixed arts include all other types that combined the first three types of art, including all the arts of performance.

The view of art as imitation or representation, dates back to at least the time of Greek philosopher Plato and has a long and distinguished history. There is always a certain degree of abstraction in representation, because it takes away one or more characteristics of the original. A painting, for example, is non-representational when the degree of abstraction makes it impossible to recognize the shape of the identifiable person or object.

The view of art as representation was replaced by the theory of art as expression. According to this view, art does not reflect states of the external world, but the inner state of the artist. Art as an expression of humans' inner life has replaced art as a representation of outer experience. Expression can be viewed as a process in the creation of art, when new combinations of elements of the medium are brought about.

Expression as a process seems irrelevant to the philosophy of art. Another way to view expression is true and important to the philosophy of art. According to this view, there are expressive properties in the works of art.

In the twentieth century there was another account of the function of art, which was a reaction against art as representation, art as expression, art as a vehicle of truth or knowledge or moral betterment or social improvement. According to the theory of art as form, or formalism, the true purpose of art is subverted by its being made to do these things. The watchword of formalism is "Art for art's sake, not art for life's sake." According to most formalists, a partial account of the specific qualities of works of art can be given. However, formalists state that in the end the qualities' presence must be felt intuitively and they cannot be described.

There are also pragmatic theories of art all of which believe that art is a means to some end, but differ from one another in what that end is. According to these theories, what matters in the final analysis is the work of art's impact upon the audience and not the nature of the work itself.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art
Richard Eldridge.
Cambridge University Press, 2003
Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction
Noël Carroll.
Routledge, 1999
Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art
Anne Sheppard.
Oxford University Press, 1987
Philosophy of Art
Virgil C. Aldrich.
Prentice-Hall, 1963
A Philosophy of Mass Art
Noël Carroll.
Clarendon Press, 1998
Aesthetic Order: A Philosophy of Order, Beauty and Art
Ruth Lorand.
Routledge, 2000
Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art
T. E. Hulme; Herbert Read.
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1924
Reflections on Art: A Source Book of Writings by Artists, Critics, and Philosophers
Susanne K. Langer.
Johns Hopkins Press, 1958
Arts and the Man: A Short Introduction to Aesthetics
Irwin Edman.
W. W. Norton, 1939
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Six "Art and Philosophy"
Art and Beauty
Max Schoen.
Macmillan, 1932
Main Trends in Aesthetics and the Sciences of Art
Mikel Dufrenne.
Holmes & Meier, 1979
Librarian’s tip: Section Two "The Philosophical Scene"
Art and the Intellect: Moral Values and the Experience of Art
Harold Taylor.
Museum of Modern Art, 1960
But Is It Art? The Value of Art and the Temptation of Theory
B. R. Tilghman.
Basil Blackwell, 1984
What Painting Is: How to Think about Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy
James Elkins.
Routledge, 2000
Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics
Gordon Graham.
Routledge, 2000 (2nd edition)
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