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If a team of monkeys with typewriters accidentally typed a coherent and

If a team of monkeys with typewriters accidentally typed a coherent and beautiful sonnet (one that appeared to be written by a talented author, despite being written by a shiftless monkey), would that qualify as art (or at least worthwhile literature)?

If Olla Fritzharold were to give a scat-singing performance whose syllables accidentally added up to something that sounded just like calling one of the audience members a shiftless monkey in his own native language, would that qualify as an insult?

No. There's nothing like the relevant intention anywhere in the ballpark (or the auditorium.) Art and insults aren't the same thing, but it's part of the conventions that go with what counts as art that typically, at least, there had to be some sort of relevant intention behind the object.

Of course, this isn't airtight. After all, there's such a thing as "found art," and then there's Duchamp's famous "Fountain," which was a factory-made urinal. But in cases like these, there's a good case for saying that what makes the thing art as opposed to merely an interesting(?) object is the fact that someone who stands in the right relation to the "Artworld" declares it to be art. And so we still have an art-relevant intention.

The larger point is that "art" isn't a natural kind. (Good thing; artifacts are supposed to stand in contrast to natural kinds.) The fact that there is art as opposed to various objects that provoke certain reactions in us rests on the fact that there is a complicated set of practices, institutions and so on that we call the artworld. The classic statement of this idea is in the work of Arthur Danto. The detailed account is in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.

What this means is that there's no natural fact, so to speak, about whether the "sonnet" by your shiftless monkey (I'm assuming he types entirely in lower-case...) is a work of art. Close enough for poetry, it would be a work of art if "the artworld" treated it as such.

(By the way: I somehow misread your first sentence on first glance, and took it to be asking if a team of donkeys with typewriters might accidentally make a work of art. The answer would be the same, but the donkeys would have a much harder time working the keys.)

No art exists but what man calls art, and man is partial.

No art exists but what man calls art, and man is partial. If this is true, and if it means that art is only valuable to men, and is thus immaterial outside of that context (the Human Context), then what is the true value of art-—the objective value? I would presume that it is valueless. Further, if an artist knows this, how can he still appreciate art, knowing it to be esoterically meaningful? …*Why* should he continue to appreciate art? --Darwin K.

Suppose I happen to get great pleasure from something that more or less no one else cares about. Maybe I really enjoy writing poems that avoid using the letter "p." I know that there's no cosmic importance to poems of this sort, and I know that it's just a quirk of my psychology that I enjoy writing them so much. This activity has no "objective" value if that means value from some point of view that doesn't take me into account. But it still has value for me, and as long as I don't spend all my time doing it, there's nothing irrational about my using this odd little hobby as a pleasant pastime. I don't need to be worried about the fact that in the larger scheme of things, "p"-less poems don't count.

The point is more or less obvious, I hope: if I dont' need to be bothered by the fact that some things have value for me alone, artists don't need to be bothered by the fact that some things have value only for a wider circle of creatures: creatures with the sorts of cognitive and perceptual capacities that go into making and appreciating art.

But we can say more: it's not clear that anything has any value apart from some sort of relationship to sentient creatures. It may not be a matter of any creature's actual experience, but it may well be that the idea of value part from all possible experience doesn't make any sense. (I'll confess that I can't make a lot of sense of it.)

Art is something that particular kinds of creatures make and appreciate. It may not just be humans, but suppose it is. Nonetheless, the appreciation of art is a many-layered, complex activity that weaves together various skills, themes and concerns. It's something that humans find meaningful, even if other kinds of creatures don't.

And so I could work myself into a state of needless anomie because art doesn't have some sort of absolute, human-independent value. Or I could stand in front of the Matisse and revel in the deliciousness of those wonderful forms and colors. Which reminds me: it's been way too long since I've been to the museum. Perhaps later this week...

Can literature "tell the truth" better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

Can literature "tell the truth" better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

My answer to this is a firm "Yes". Novels, for example, "tell the

truth" better than any other written material, with the exception

things like diaries and letters, unless you think of the relevant

passages of diaries and letters as though they were mini-novels. But

diaries and letters are no better at telling the truth in the

appropriate sense than the skills of their authors. What sense is the

sense in which novels (or more generally imaginative writing) can "tell

the truth" better than any other "Areas of Knowledge", as you call

them? (I imagine that you might have the sciences in mind.) The sense

is one in which telling the truth has to do with getting the details of

a description absolutely right, and getting the overal balance and

colour and mood of what one is describing absolutely right. Here

psychology for example (which might be thought to give "tell the truth"

better than the novel) is no better than the sensibility (the

eighteenth and nineteenth century word) of the individual working

psychologist. And psychology as a whole can be worse, because its

collective or institutional scientific structure blots out the most

personal and individual aspects of its subjects' lives. 'What an

intelligent man knows is hard to know', as Goethe observed. But I agree

with Kalynne Pudner that there is a rich and rewarding philosophical

literature that exists exactly on this topic. My philosophical guides in

the area, who share the view I have sketched above, are Iris

Murdoch and Vladimir Nabokov.

Hey, A question of art. What can philosophy say about the emergence of the new

Hey, A question of art. What can philosophy say about the emergence of the new art forms of the late 20 century? Can a computer programmer in any way be an artist, can a video game be considered art, even when its primary focus is to entertain, can a whole web page be a work of art? Thanks by advance

Well, if by 'the new art forms' you mean such things as video games and web pages, then it looks like you have answered your own questions in the affirmative. To me that seems the right answer.

A video game could be both art and entertainment, a web page could be both a work of art and a means of communication, just as a building designed by Gaudi could be a work of art and a house.

How is it that we are still able to enjoy works of art, especially literary

How is it that we are still able to enjoy works of art, especially literary works, produced hundreds and in some cases thousands of years ago? We can still enjoy, for example, The Epic of Gilgamesh or Homer or Beowulf, despite their having been produced in ancient societies with values and attitudes profoundly different to our own? Does this suggest they uphold certain values or beliefs which are of timeless and enduring importance to human beings?

An excellent question. One can imagine two very different types ofenjoyment that would lead to two very different answers to yourquestion. We might enjoy something because it is familiar, and thusserves to comfort or even reinforce our sense of who we are, and thevalue of who we are. (If I had a choice, I would call this the 'pizzaand beer' theory, after my personal paradigm of what is familiar andenjoyable.) This line of thinking would lend itself to theposition you express in your last question: human productions, evenfrom long ago or far away, rest on a baseline of distinctly humanbeliefs, values or modes of thought that make them in some way'familiar' and thus enjoyable.

On the other hand, it also seems reasonable to argue thatsomething alien to me can be enjoyed precisely because it is alien,new, different, or challenging. This suggests that Gilgamesh isenjoyable because it is unfamiliar and continues to resistassimilation into the familiar.

These two modes of enjoyment have a certain dependency upon oneanother. What is familiar tends to be found enjoyable as a refugefrom the alien, as a 'home-coming'; in order for the alien tocontinually resist assimilation I have to be constantly trying tobring it into the range of what is familiar to me. Familiar and alienare not just static states of consciousness, but are part of amovement back and forth, a dialectic.

I've never thought of this issue in terms of 'enjoyment' before.I've always looked at it from the point of view of understanding: howis it that Gilgamesh can be read at all and make sense to me? The twoquestions are formally similar, since both suggest this dialecticbetween the familiar and the alien. Accordingly, partly under theinfluence of Hegel, this dialectic has often been considered centralto the nature of interpretation and especially our relationship withcultural artefacts and specifically art. Accordingly, it is oftenargued (and this is one of the key arguments behind a liberal artseducation) that part of the purpose of the study of foreign culturesor history is to enlarge my sense of the familiar, to make me a morecomplete person with a richer sense of my self and my world.

Do you think cosmetic surgery performed by a surgeon is a form of art?

Do you think cosmetic surgery performed by a surgeon is a form of art?

Yes and no, though perhaps most importantly no. Saying that something is an art is sometimes a way of saying that it's an exercise of skill, not least of a skill that isn't simply a matter of following a set of instructions. In that sense, cosmetic surgery is an art. Cosmetic surgery also has an obvious aesthetic dimension and no doubt calls on many of the same skills that a good sculptor needs. So all of that is on the "yes" side.

But there's another obvious sense in which cosmetic surgery isn't an art, or better, perhaps, an Art. Painting, sculpture, poetry, etc. are Arts in this sense not just by virtue of being skills whose practitioners may have aesthetic goals. They also fit into a familiar set of cultural practices and institutions (museums, galleries, performances, reviews, critical studies, sales, auctions...) that determine what we count as "Art" with a capital "A." Cosmetic surgery isn't an "Art" in that sense, and this is almost certainly a very good thing.

Since the beginnings of the XX century, with the emergence of new kinds of

Since the beginnings of the XX century, with the emergence of new kinds of artistic expression such as conceptual art, video, photography, etc., there has appeared a need for defining what is art and what is not. But the search for that particular definition has proved to be difficult because of one fundamental issue: How to unite in one concept all the artistic ways of expression without ending up with a too vague definition? With the emergence of this problem, there seems to appear an even more basic question: Is it reasonable to search for a definition of art?

A good question. If we go off looking for what all artworks have in common, we may find ourselves baffled. Of course, as many people have pointed out, definitions are generally a lot harder to come by than we naively think. Wittgenstein's example of game is still a good example. Try coming up with a definition that captures all and only the things we call games. Still, it might be possible to say a little more about art. For some time now (at least since 1964) many philosophers have taken a different approach: what makes something a work of art isn't any intrinsic property of the work itself. Roughly and over-simply, an artwork is something that the "artworld" takes to be art. The prototype of this view was introduced by Arthur Danto, who would find the way I've put it far too crude. George Dickie formalized the approach along the lines of the rough formula that I've given.

This approach may sound a little silly at first, but it actually explains a good deal. Although it would be hard to draw the boundaries sharply, there really is a collection of people and institutions who make up what sometimes gets called the artworld. Recognized artists belong, of course, as do critics, curators, galleries, art dealers, art shools, art historians and on and on. As a first stab, we can put it this way: if the members of the artworld recognize something as a work of art, then it is. Marcel Duchamp's 1917 "Fountain", a ready-made urinal was controversial when it was first introduced, but it is now considered by many critics to be one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century. (See this story from the BBC.) Duchamp, of course, was challenging pre-conceived notions of what counts as art, but Fountain gradually became accepted by the artworld, and that, arguably, is what makes it a work of art. (Note, by the way: on this approach there will be plenty of borderline cases.)

Partly in the wake of Duchamp and others with his sensibility, artists have taken it as part of their role to challenge and question the ways we think of art itself. Perhaps paradoxically, when they succeed in bringing the artworld along, their new vision gets absorbed into the practices and traditions of the artworld. So-called "instititutional" and related approaches to defining art may be the best way to account for this. If you want to read more, try looking at this essay by Robert J. Yanal.

Can a work of art have value regardless of who creates it? Can, and should, we

Can a work of art have value regardless of who creates it? Can, and should, we look past the character of the artist - however immoral we consider them to be - and simply experience and esteem the work itself?

Consider these lines; perhaps you know them:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough

I first came across this poem 35 years ago. Though tastes may vary, it still works for me. But as you may well know, it's by Ezra Pound, who was a propagandist for Mussolini and a virulent anti-Semite. If I bring that to mind as I think about the poem, it leaves an unpleasant taste. But I don't think this shows that the poem itself is less valuable, and I also don't think it means that one can't legitimately take pleasure in it.

Whether all cases work this way is another matter. Pound was trying to present a pure image. A good deal of art isn't like that. Outside the context of art, knowing how to interpret someone's words or gestures sometimes calls for knowing something about the person. It doesn't seem crazy to think that this could also be true for certain works of art, though there is a large and long-standing debate here.

On the main question, however, it's hard to see why the answer shouldn't be yes. Sometimes we can say: the artist was wicked. But few people, if any, are wicked through and through, and it would take a good deal of argument to show that that everything a wicked person does expresses wickedness. Indeed, the fact that someone whom one can't admire all things considered can still produce beauty might well evoke compassion rather than revulsion.

Trois questions...

Trois questions... Are there any influential essays on aesthetics which deal with modern rather than fine art? I have just read Kant's "Critique of aesthetic judgment" and Hume's "Of the standard of taste", which made me want to read more recent treatments of the debate. In your opinion, is aesthetics necessarily linked to visual art, or could the term equally be applied to music and literature? Finally, how far is aesthetic appreciation informed by intuition, and how much by logic (in the case of visual art - the golden mean, composition, etc)? Is there any consensus on this? Thank you.

1. Yes, there is much interesting philosophical work on modern art. I would start with Arthur Danto, who has written many interesting essays (often for the Nation) and a few fascinating books on the topic.

2. The term aesthetics is certainly applied to music -- see Theodor Adorno and currently Lydia Goehr and Peter Kivy for example -- as well as to poetry. Less frequently to literature, but this is presumably because there aesthetic quality is typically a less important component of overall quality (esp. outside fiction).

3. "Logic" is perhaps not quite the right word for what you have in mind here. Perhaps "rules"? I would think that aesthetic judgments are intuitive judgments, and that any rules laid down for composition or appreciation have standing only insofar as they are confirmed by intuitive judgments. (Intuitive judgments may differ, as they did in respect to the atonal works of Arnold Schönberg, for instance, and judgments about rules will then differ correspondingly.) To what extent can our intuitive aesthetic judgments be expressed in rules? This question has been quite interestingly addressed in modern times by reference to the apparently quite fundamental distinction between objects that are and objects that are not works of art. Is there a rule for drawing this distinction? Marcel Duchamp raised this question dramatically when, in 1917, he took an ordinary white gentlemen's urinal, called it Fountain, signed it, and put it on display. In 1962, Andy Warhol began displaying Campbell soup cans. The debate about what is art, and what is good art, is ongoing; and Arthur Danto's work offers an excellent entry into this debate.