Advanced Search

Why are Picasso paintings so important? How can I appreciate the importance of

Why are Picasso paintings so important? How can I appreciate the importance of Picasso paintings? Honestly, when I look at them I think that they are interesting but I never get the impression that they are produced by a genius. If understanding Picasso's paintings (and art in general) needs training (knowing Picasso's life, knowing the context in which the paintings are created, knowing Picasso's intentions, knowing the traditions in painting, etc.) why are they exhibiting art works to the public? Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" is one of the best and most influential articles in the history of analytic philosophy but nobody expects non-philosophers to appreciate its importance. There are no Quine exhibitions. Thanks.

I'm no expert on art, just someone who enjoys it, but I certainly would agree with you that Picasso can be hard to understand. Most of his painting (and sculpture) isn't what one would describe as "beautiful", though there are paintings of his that are beautiful: For example, "Child with a Dove" (see it here). But what's beautiful about paintings like this one, to my mind, is what they convey emotionally and less anything to do with sheer physical beauty. And one finds a similar sort of emotional intensity in many of Picasso's other works. His portrait of Gertrude Stein (here) is just brilliant.

Now, to be sure, Picasso's later works can be more challenging. It can be very hard even to see what's happening in paintings like "The Guitar Player" (here) or "Afficionado" (here). And, in this case, I think it can help a great deal, as one tries to learn how to see these paintings, to learn something about the aesthetic that lies behind them. Picasso did not decide to paint in the ways he did simply out of perversity. He was looking for a way to express things he could not otherwise express. (Schoenberg makes similar remarks about the reasons for his invention of the twelve-tone method of composition.) How much success Picasso had is presumably for the viewer to judge. But once one opens one's mind, and better one's heart, to what Picasso is trying to do, one can come to see a painting like "Portrait of Maya with a Doll" (here) as, indeed, quite beautiful.

For me, though, the proof of Picasso's genius is the single painting "Guernica" (here). No more powerful comment on the horrors of war has ever been produced, and I can't even begin to see how Picasso could have produced such a powerful piece of work except by marshalling everything he had done beforehand. If you are ever in Madrid, you really must see it. It's exhibited along with many of the studies Picasso did as preparation, and it is fascinating to see the vision finally emerge.

I often find myself thinking what really distinguishes Humans apart from other

I often find myself thinking what really distinguishes Humans apart from other animals. If it is intelligence (high or low is irrelevant, it is still an inelegance) then this statement isn't true since we know that there are numbers of highly intelligent species including birds (non-mammal). So I came to conclusion that the only thing that does separate us is art, or perhaps understanding the value of art. But to contradict myself I keep flashing back on various images and video clips of cats or other animals "painting" on the canvas. Do you think in your philosophical opinion do these animals go through similar (high or low is irrelevant) process of appreciating art.

A fascinating question. I suspect that art appreciation might well be important, although perhaps only as a symptom of an underlying difference.

Let's look at the question more generally. It is important for us to know what are the essential differences between humans and other animals for two reasons. First, because it is an important part of understanding who we are. Second, because we eat animals, wear their skins, keep them in zoos, experiment on them and so forth -- all things that we tend to feel are morally wrong with respect to human beings.

Philosophers, then, tend to be divided into three very general camps. 1. Those who believe that there are morally significant differences between human beings and animals. 2. Those who believe that there are not such differences, and thus tend to argue for animal rights. 3. Those who feel this is the wrong question to be asking. Here, we'll ignore the third group, for simplicity.

The most common distinctions given by philosophers in the first group are: reasoning, especially abstract reasoning; language use; moral reasoning and action. The 18th Century philosophy Kant argued that the third of these was the most important, because only this difference could itself be a morally relevant difference. We have obligations to humans, partly because humans are capable of having obligations. The fact that a cow (say) cannot speak would have to be supplemented by an argument that this lack is morally significant, and I am permitted to eat it.

Art appreciation, as a capacity, is much less commonly proposed. It is also very difficult to determine whether a cat, for example, appreciates or even makes art. The capacity for abstract thought seems much easier to decide.

One final point: you say that the difference between low and high intelligence is irrelevant. However, significant differences in intelligence may not be simply a question of quantity, but rather of type. Let us say, for argument’s sake, that a human brain is structured pretty much the same as a cat’s, but has 20 times the number of neurons. Now, does this mean the human is 20 times as intelligent, or rather that the increase in neurons yields a different kind of intelligence, which is not on the same scale? The smartest cat ever could not take an IQ test; not because it is not smart enough quantitatively, but because its intelligence is of a different qualitative type. This different type of intelligence might also be what is manifesting itself in the capacity to make and appreciate art. However, even if we accept this, again another argument would be required to show that it was morally significant.

Can acts of terrorism, as choreographed performances of something, be consider

Can acts of terrorism, as choreographed performances of something, be consider art?

Terrorist acts can be considered art, surely. I know an artist who, when he saw the WTC burning from his loft window, thought this was art (namely the filming of a movie). But his judgment was based on a factual error. So you might ask: What may rightly be considered art? I think the best answer to this question now is that there is no good answer, no boundary between art and non-art (see my response to question 865). To be sure, we might consider in very bad taste an invitation to consider as art a terrorist attack in which innocent civilians died. But much of what is treated as art (exhibited in museums, sold in gallaries) is widely considered to be in bad taste -- and defended as expanding the consciousness of a complacent public. And similarly for other properties that one might think disqualify something from being art. For any such property, or combination of such properties, there seem to be things with these properties that are considered art.

In the town where I live, many people dress themselves quite eclectically with

In the town where I live, many people dress themselves quite eclectically with what seems to be the intention of 'being seen'. Given that this is possible (i.e., wearing clothes simply for the purpose of attracting attention and displaying said clothes in a public area), can we consider these people to be 'art'? If not, then could we consider them as art if they exhibited themselves in a specifically defined gallery-space?

This revolutionary question was raised in a different way by Andy Warhol when he first painted Campbell soup cans (around 1962, I believe) and especially when he displayed Brillo boxes in gallery and museum settings (these were commercial wholesale boxes containing little steelwool soap pads for use in cleaning pots and pans). People asked what he presumably meant them to ask: Is this art? And how does one tell (properties of the object, intent of the presenter, setting and context, or what)? There are different responses to these questions. One of these is that the very distinction between art and non-art is untenable -- or, perhaps better, has been subverted by the evolution of art itself. Some wonderful philosophical reflections on this theme can be found in the work of Arthur Danto. See e.g. his "The End of Art" (in his The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art) or The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.

You seem to have to know the cultural context of a piece of art to appreciate it

You seem to have to know the cultural context of a piece of art to appreciate it. For example a painting may not be particularly outstanding on its own but it may have been the first in a new style or movement in art. However this means that a piece of art has different asethetic value depending on the past works or future developments. It seems counter-intuitive for the same object to be of differing value due to different outside circumstances.

It is for that reason that many think that the context within which a work of art is produced is of no relevance to its aesthetic value or analysis. Certainly we might for historical or cultural reasons be very interested in the context - what the artist had for breakfast on the day she painted it, how much it was sold for, what impact it made on the local environment, and so on - but many would say that this is irrelevant to its aesthetic value. After all, we can often appreciate objects that we know absolutely nothing about.

Is there a philosophical view that living the good life is an artistic endeavor?

Is there a philosophical view that living the good life is an artistic endeavor? If so, what philosophers are known for this sort of view?

Yes, Nietzsche. For a good discussion, see Nehamas' book, Nietzsche:Life as Literature. Laotze is often read this way, too. Read theDaodeching and see what you think.

Do truth and morality affect beauty? We hear of immoral beliefs being 'ugly'.

Do truth and morality affect beauty? We hear of immoral beliefs being 'ugly'. All other things being equal, would a piece of art that supported falsity and immorality be any less beautiful? (For example, art that supported the Nazi party?)

This questions raises all sorts of interesting issues. I'm going tolimit my focus to the question of the relationship between morality andbeauty and avoid any discussion of more general questions relating totruth and the value of art. But there's a wealth of good literature onthe relation between morality and artistic value. See, for example, theessays in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics, (Cambridge: CUP, 1998). But here are a few thoughts on beauty and morality.

Itis true that we sometimes talk of immoral beliefs being ugly. We mayalso characterize immoral actions as ugly and moral ones as beautiful.And character assessment is sometimes made in terms of beauty andugliness ; e.g., 'she has a beautiful soul'. But I'm tempted by thethought that these usages are metaphorical; that is, we are not reallymaking aesthetic judgments--we are not literally ascribing beauty tothese objects-- when we talk this way. Why? Well, beauty and uglinessin the paradigm cases are associated with perceptual experience. Themost uncontroversial cases of literal judgments of beauty involvethings that can be perceived. And the clearest cases in which we can besaid to experience beauty are rooted in perceptual experience. Forexample, our experiences of the beauty of the sunset, the painting, theflower, etc. are based on our perception of those objects.

Ourcharacterizations of immoral beliefs as being ugly doesn't seem to meto be based on their being able to be perceived. Neither perception norperceivablity seem involved in our talk of their ugliness at all. Butthere does seem to be something appropriate or fitting in talking aboutimmoral beliefs as ugly and virtuous people as having beautiful souls.This appropriateness is just the sort of thing one finds w/metaphoricallanguage. So I suggest that immoral actions are only ugly in ametaphorical sense.

Now, it's also true that we characterizeand experience proofs, theories, and literary works as beautiful, andthat these judgments do not seem necessarily rooted in perception. Thesame seems true about non-perceptual imagery. But I don't think weshould assume these characterizations are metaphorical. Note that experienceis still really crucial in these cases. For example, the ordinaryjudgment that a proof is beautiful seems dependent on that proof beingthe object of someone's experience (typically your own). So too withrespect to imagery. This seems very different from the immoralbelief/action case. There it seems you might be tempted to call anaction or belief ugly just on the basis of its description. Experienceisn't required.

Upshot: I don't think the fact that wecharacterize immoral beliefs as ugly suggests that morality affectsbeauty, since I think these characterizations are metaphorical. Infact, a disturbing fact about human life and art isthat beauty and morality often pull apart in dramatic ways. Forexample, some works of art are particularly dangerous because theypresent immoral ideas beautifully. Mary Devereaux makes a nice case forthis in her paper "Beauty and Evil: the case of Leni Riefensthal's Triumph of the Will," in J. Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics, (Cambridge: CUP, 1998).

Can you recommend any introductions to aesthetics?

Can you recommend any introductions to aesthetics?

Here are a few good introductions (there are others):

Noël Carroll, Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction

Marcia Muelder Eaton, Basic Issues in Aesthetics

Cynthia Freeland, But is it Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory (note: this is the least academic, but it's fun and interesting)

Gordon Graham, Philosophy of the Arts: an introduction

You also might look at some of the good anthologies out there. Here are two that I like:

Peter Lamarque and Stein H. Olsen (eds.), Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition (note: this is excellent, but it's more difficult than the other books on the list)

Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley (eds.), Arguing about Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates (note: this doesn't give a general overview, but it focuses on a variety of interesting topics)

At the current Rubens exhibition at the National Gallery there is a painting

At the current Rubens exhibition at the National Gallery there is a painting called "Murder of the Innocents" which includes a figure of a man holding up a baby. He is about to smash its head on a stone that is already covered in blood. How can that painting be beautiful?

Perhaps it is terrible, awe-inspiring, terrifying, moving and so on, all perfectly appropriate aesthetic qualities. Or perhaps despite the subject matter it really is beautiful, and the beauty of the composition is magnified by its contrast with the subject matter.

All spoken and written languages - current or extinct - have things they express

All spoken and written languages - current or extinct - have things they express poorly or can't express at all. Art can be used to fill in the gaps of the inexpressible. How many languages would a person need to know to express everything, and by being able to express everything, would they be more capable or less capable of art?

These new coffee beans I just got make very nice coffee. I could try to describe the difference in the taste, but I'm not much of a coffee expert. I'm sure there are people who could do a better job than I could, but, frankly, I don't find the descriptions I read on the bins all that helpful. I mean, I can see why someone would say that this particular roast had a hint of cinnamon, but that hardly captures it.

Is there a thought here that cannot be put into words? That's quite unclear, but there does seem to be something here that it is difficult, maybe even impossible, to put into words, except, as John McDowell suggested, by saying simply: that taste. But that's not exactly what one had in mind.

Suppose I've tried a lot of coffees, and I find that many of them seem similar to me in a certain hard to describe way. Coffees A, B, and C seem similar to one another in this respect; coffees D and E are similar in that respect, but not to A, B, and C; and coffee F is unique in that respect. Suppose I can reliably detect such similarities. Then it seems as if there's something there about which I can think but which it might be very difficult to express verbally. I can name the respect in which the coffees are being compared, to be sure: Coffees A, B, and C have the same sort of flubidity, whereas D and E have a different flubidity, though one different from A, B, and C, and coffee F has a flubidity all its own. But there nonetheless seems to be something missing from the verbal description, namely, something about the terms of the comparison and, moreover, the intrinsic properties of the coffees that I'm comparing.