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Aesthetics: A Philosophical Introduction

Lecturer: Cameron Shingleton

Originally Taught: Summer School 2011

"Aesthetics: A Philosophical Introduction" aims to achieve three goals: (1) to introduce students to some of the basic conceptual repertoire of aesthetics, (2) to sketch some of the main theories, interpretations and problems that aesthetic concepts open out onto and (3) to present a small number of key texts in which the problems of interpreting art have been addressed by major thinkers.

To begin with we will make a distinction between the constitution (composition, creation), the presentation (performance) and the reception of art; we will also survey a wide range of basic aesthetic qualities that provide the raw material of our experiences of art, including humour, beauty, form, design, expression (musical and dramatic) and verisimilitude – all with a view to answering some vital aesthetic questions: What is a work of art? What is the relationship between works of art and everyday aesthetic experience that falls short of the creation of artworks?

Each day of the course will explore in some depth a different aesthetic quality; students will be encouraged to focus their attention on the particular dimension of aesthetic life that speaks best to their own artistic interests. The traditional aesthetic quandary about the objective/subjective constitution of art will be reviewed in order to be rejected. The argument students will be asked to evaluate is that aesthetic experience is quintessentially intersubjective (thus neither objective nor subjective): beauty, humour, form etc are neither statically "in the eye of the beholder" nor in the object s/he beholds, rather they come to inhere in the beholder and the object because of the way evaluative standards are supplied by a wider culture. The wider culture thus becomes what gives art a primary meaning, without mechanically determining the aesthetic experiences of individuals.
However, students will also be encouraged to respond to a series of problems that have fallen beyond the bounds of aesthetics as traditionally defined. From a critical social perspective, we will move on to examine such questions as: What is the place of art in social modernity? How does art relate or fail to relate to other domains of social activity – particularly economic life? Does art play more of a role in modern human life or is it becoming more marginal? How has art changed in response to the sustained assaults on received notions of the nature of art/artworks throughout the twentieth century? What difference has been made to the possibilities of artistic creation and experience by the calculated aestheticisation of everyday life as part of contemporary capitalist economic life?

The reader will include selections from

  • Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry
  • Walter Benjamin, "The Story-Teller"and "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"
  • Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
  • Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes
  • Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment
  • Harry Redner, Aesthetic Life: The History and Present of Aesthetic Cultures
  • Tolstoy, What is Art?

Difficulty: Introductory