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Is a beautiful painting a good painting because it's beautiful? If you answer

Is a beautiful painting a good painting because it's beautiful? If you answer "Yes" I would say that a beautiful painting is a good painting because it's good, and not because it's beautiful. What would you say?

This is a very similar question to another I answered a few months ago, so apologies if you've read that and are looking for a different reply!

I think that there are some paintings that are good paintings at least in part because they are beautiful. Being beautiful is one way in which a painting can be good; beauty is one kind of aesthetic good. But there are others, such as being thought-provoking or communicating deep emotion. So being beautiful is not necessary for being good as a painting. And there may be cases in which a beautiful painting is not good. Some beautiful works of art can be relatively superficial, e.g. they may express a superficial emotion (‘isn’t it lovely?’) or view of life, leaving us wondering dissatisfied with it as art, even if we admire the way it looks on the surface. So beauty is not be sufficient for being a good painting.

But we cannot infer from these points that when a painting is beautiful and good, its being beautiful is not what makes it good. In other words, there may be cases in which the beauty of the painting is what makes it good (or at least, is one reason why it is good). To appreciate this, we have to resist the thought that there must be universal rules that we apply in judging whether something is aesthetically good or not. Beauty might be sufficient on one occasion but not on another.

Perhaps an analogy with causes is helpful. Striking a match is neither necessary nor sufficient for lighting a match. I can light a match without striking it by placing its end in an existing flame. And I can strike a match without lighting it by doing so in an environment without oxygen (e.g. on the moon). But I still want to say that, under normal conditions, my striking the match causes the match to light. So if a good painting is beautiful, it may be that it is good because it is beautiful, though it may be that it is good because it is, in addition, deeply expressive or thought-provoking or.... Cases could differ.

I don't think we can say that a painting (beautiful or not) is good because it is good - the 'because' is misleading here. You might want to say that 'good' has no further definition (as Moore did about moral goodness), i.e. you can't define 'good painting' as 'beautiful painting'. This is a claim about the concept 'good'. Even if we accept this, we can allow that there are properties that make a good painting good - this is about the relation between the property of being good and other properties. Just as Moore thought that what makes a good action good is that it maximises happiness, so we can argue that makes a good painting good is its beauty, or perhaps a multiplicity of different aesthetic qualities. Or, put differently, we could think that a painting's being beautiful is a reason to think that it is good, without saying that being beautiful is the same thing as being good (as a painting).

Why should movies get the science right?

Why should movies get the science right? I have long heard that some/many sci-fi movies get the science wrong and I just sit there thinking -"well what's wrong with that?". I've managed construct a few bad reasons as to why they should get it right, but most of these are somewhere along the lines of: 'it might mislead people'. Your help will be much appreciated.

I don't think there's any general injunction about getting the science right, but sometimes getting it wrong can be a distraction. One example that's been discussed by various critics comes from Lord of the Flies. Piggy's glasses are used to focus sunlight and start a fire. But Piggy is nearsighted; his lenses would be concave rather than convex and couldn't be used to start a fire. (Thanks to John Holliday for this example, which he discusses in his dissertation.) Many readers won't realize the problem, but the glasses and Piggy's nearsightedness aren't just an incidental plot element. This is the sort of detail that Golding could have gotten right and once you know that it's wrong, you may never be able to read those scenes in the same way.

Needless to say, this doesn't show that getting the science right always matters. It surely doesn't. It's also plausible that these things will be matters of degree. The more esoteric the bit of science, and the less central to the story, the less it's likely to matter whether the author gets it right. Also, if we couldn't reasonably expect the author to get it right (say, because the relevant bits of science weren't known when the story was written), we will be more forgiving, though even we may need to make an effort not to let ourselves be jarred by the inaccuracy.

We could add that it's not just science that matters. I remember as a boy reading a Hardy Boys story in which part of the action took place in eastern Canada, in "St. John's, New Brunswick." This annoyed me and distracted me; there is no St. John's, New Brunswick. There is a St. John's, Newfoundland. There is a Saint John New Brunswick (and yes, the spelling matters.) The author could easily have gotten this detail right with a minimum of research. The story, of course, is a fiction. But like most stories, it's a fiction intended to bear a certain relationship to the real world. Imagine, for instance, an author who set a scene in Faneuil Hall in Boston, Connecticut. I'd need a pretty good reason to forgive the author for that oversight. I'd also need a pretty good reason to forgive an author who wrote a story with a physics professor character who said that electrons are bosons.

So even though fictions are, well, fictional, getting the facts right can make an aesthetic difference, and scientific facts can be among the ones that matter.

Can a painting be *false* by not depicting reality? Suppose that some painter

Can a painting be *false* by not depicting reality? Suppose that some painter paints something that really happened, but adds or subtracts details that do not correspond to reality. Or suppose that the painter not only does that, but adds a title that makes it cleat that the painting to the real event. Or think about "photoshopped" photos. The reason why I am asking this is that I often read on the internet that (only?) sentences and "propositions" can be true or false, and a painting is not a sentence nor a proposition.

A nice question.

Suppose a painter paints a scene with a person in it. Apart from very special circumstances, we wouldn't take this to be a matter of the painter telling us that the event really happened and the person depicted was really there. It might be that a real person is depicted who really was in the place pictured. But that's not how paintings are ordinarily intended, and it's not how they're ordinarily understood. Calling the painting false because what it asks us to imagine never really happened would be a bit like saying that the Sherlock Holmes stories are false because there was never any such person as Sherlock Holmes.

Of course, a painter could use a painting as a way of conveying information intended to be factual. I take that to be the point of your example. And in many cases, some aspects of paintings are intended in just that way. Suppose a portrait depicts a blue-eyed person as having brown eyes. Depending on the larger story, this might be a genuine inaccuracy in the painting. We could certainly say things like "the painting gets it wrong," and no one would be confused.

The case of the doctored photo is a good one. Pictures are often used as a way of conveying information, and they can be used deceptively. I can lie by using a picture. That means I can use a picture as a way of asserting a proposition that I know is false.

So why not say that in such cases, the painting is false? We could, I suppose, and there could even be a set of conventions governing the use of the words "true" and "false" when applied to paintings. That said, it's not hard to see some reasons why we don't do that. Close enough for present purposes, the content of a proposition is definite. And in typical cases, which proposition a sentence is used to assert is unambiguous. "Schenectady is in New York" is a good example. There's very little ambiguity, if any, about what proposition someone is asserting when they use this sentence, and so the question of whether the sentence is true or false has a clear answer. The semantics of sentences like this is reasonably clear and the way in which they can be combined with other sentences to produce yet other sentences more complex truth-conditions is clear. That's not so for pictures. We can use sentences to assert disjunctions ("or" statements), negations, conditionals, etc. What sort of picture would say that Mary has one or two children? Or that if Mary gets to work late, she will be fired? We can dream up ways of doing this, no doubt, but we'll mostly do it ad hoc.

Or for that matter: which features of pictures would we take to be part of what's asserted? Again, in particular cases we could have ad hoc rules that settled the question. But when pictures are used to make assertions, it will be a matter of some features of the picture being used in this way, even though other features that equally well could have been used to make assertions aren't.

To tie all this up, one important difference between pictures and sentences is that sentences usually have a reasonably clear syntax and a reasonably well-settled semantics. (I don't mean that the theory of syntax and semantics is well-settled; I mean that in practice we can generally agree on the structure of actual sentences, and we can generally agree on what they do and don't mean.) This allows us to talk about truth and falsity in a precise and structured way. Pictures often have rich representational content, but it's a considerable stretch to say that there's a full-blown syntax and semantics for pictures. This doesn't mean that we can never apply terms like "false" to a picture, but pictures are very different from the sorts of things to which we paradigmatically apply words like "true" and "false."

Are all beautiful paintings good paintings?

Are all beautiful paintings good paintings? If you answer Yes I would say that it's impossible to view all the beautiful paintings in the world, so it would be impossible to conclude that all beautiful paintings are good paintings. If you answer No, if you view a beautiful painting how can you judge whether it's good or not, if not all beautiful paintings are good paintings? What would your answer be?

I’m going to say ‘no’. But before answering your challenge to saying 'no', a comment on your challenge to saying ‘yes’. You assume that in order to know that all beautiful paintings are good paintings, I must view all beautiful paintings. But this assumes, in turn, that the only way we can establish a connection between being beautiful and being good is through repeated experience, i.e. empirically. That’s not, I think, true. There could be – indeed, I think there is – a conceptual connection between beauty and aesthetic goodness. Compare: to know that all vixens are foxes, I don’t need to find all the vixens in the world, and check that they are foxes. I just need to understand the word ‘vixen’, meaning ‘female fox’. So if we could show that ‘beauty’ is, conceptually, a type of aesthetic goodness, a standard of what is good, aesthetically speaking, then we can know – without checking – that all beautiful paintings will be good.

But I’m not satisfied with this answer. Beauty is one kind of aesthetic good, but perhaps there are others. Maybe to be good as a painting, i.e. a work of art, requires something either different from, or in addition to, beauty. I think it does. And knowing what makes a painting a good painting – knowing the standard for good art - will help us know how to discover whether something is good art or not. This might not be foolproof, or give clear answers every time. That's not an objection. Compare: I can say, perfectly well, how I can judge that there is a table in front of me – I see it – without claiming that my vision is always correct, never confused (think of fog and bad lighting).

So – this next bit is very contentious! Art is about the communication of thought and feeling. Tolstoy (‘What is art?’) says “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands onto others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by those feelings and also experience them.” There are lots of problems with this at it stands, but I think the kernel is right. To judge a piece of art as good or not, we must first understand it, and we should judge it in light of what we come to understand. We need to understand what the artist is trying to do, and then experience that effect ourselves. The first part covers their psychological processes, both conscious and unconscious, but also the artistic conventions and climate of their time (e.g. aesthetic conventions, systems of symbolism, available modes of production, the original purpose of the work, and much else). What you know will make a difference to what you perceive, just as a bird-spotter can see and distinguish different species when the uninformed will just see birds. With this deeper understanding, we can see what succeeds in the painting and what does not, what the artist is aiming at. We can also understand the profundity (or not) of what is expressed there. Some conceptual art, for instance, is gimmicky – once you get the idea, the artwork quickly loses interest. But it needn’t be, e.g. there can be much to reflect on in the way in which the concept is expressed through the medium.

Some beautiful works of art can be relatively superficial, e.g. they may express a superficial emotion (‘isn’t it lovely?’) or view of life, leaving us wondering dissatisfied with it as art, even if we admire the way it looks on the surface. So not all beautiful paintings are good paintings. To know whether they are, I’d need to know much more about the painting and the context of its creation, and then see whether the painting succeeds in communicating what the artist aimed at.

Whenever ethics and aesthetics come into conflict, is it always aesthetics that

Whenever ethics and aesthetics come into conflict, is it always aesthetics that must give way? What is so bad about killing ugly people to decrease the net ugliness in the world?

A postscript: the larger question was whether ethics always trumps aesthetics. A closely-related question is whether a life that always puts moral considerations above all other considerations, no matter how apparently trivial the issue, is a good one. Susan Wolf had interesting things to say about this some years ago in her paper "Moral Saints." (Journal of Philosophy, August 1982.) Here's a link to her essay:

A question about art for you. If consensus could be reached on a theoretical

A question about art for you. If consensus could be reached on a theoretical definition of art, stating the necessary and sufficient conditions for anything to be called a work of art, would that imply a closing off of art, similar to art in say a former socialist country or a tight religious community that prescribes how art has to be? And if not, what use would the definition be? Would it have any effect on the production of art at all? Or was is the point of a theoretical definition of art? Thanks in advance.

Great questions. Today, standard reference works e.g. the Blackwell Companion to Aesthetics will offer a dozen variations of definitions of art that are of historical and contemporary interest. In my view, none of them are highly restrictive. The idea that works of art are mimetic or imitations or that art is expressive or a form of communication or it embodies emotions or works of art are intended to prompt aesthetic experiences or works of art are objects that make-up the art world, and so on, can each recognize and possibly inspire multiple, almost limitless kinds of works of art. There will be cases, however, when some works of art fit some definitions or philosophies of art better than others. There are works of art today that seem so conceptual and austere from an aesthetic point of view that the aesthetic account of art and art-making is stressed. For the record, I defend an aesthetic account of works of art --see Aesthetics: A beginner's guide.

I suggest that the whole undertaking by philosophers and sometimes by philosophers who are themselves artists like Leo Tolstoy to arrive at a definition of art is somewhat like an ecologist discerning what counts as a healthy ecosystem. The project is not a matter of strict scientific observation but involves balancing a host of factors and equally competent ecologists might differ in terms of the weight they give to different factors e.g. how much weight should be given to human needs and preferences vs nonhuman animals, plants.... Just as an ecologist concept of a healthy ecosystem might guide practical decisions about human development, sometimes a definition or philosophy of art might guide a curator's decision-making and the public receptivity to shows / exhibits / public art. The situation seems slightly different from another domain of philosophy: epistemology or the theory of knowledge. I doubt whether ordinary persons who claim to know this or that ever hesitate in making these claims until they consult formal philosophical work on knowledge. Similarly, there are probably few artists who feel they need to regularly consult The British Journal of Aesthetics or the Blackwell Companion in the course of their art making! But I believe it is fair to observe that many artists in many cultural contexts today *and many museums and art galleries work with some assumptions about what makes something a work of art. One motivation for philosophers to examine such assumptions is to open up dialogue about when such assumptions might be too restrictive or permissive. A good example of a philosopher who sought to advance a philosophy of art that had some normative consequences is the late Monroe Beardsley. He defended what is known as an aesthetic account of art and he used this to present arguments for the unique importance of art work in a democratic republic. If you are interested in seeing how a philosophy of art might be employed to make a case that the public should support the arts, Beardsley's work is highly recommended. The free and online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on such topics is an excellent reference and guide.

I recently saw "Gone Girl" (spoiler alert!) and have been reading articles about

I recently saw "Gone Girl" (spoiler alert!) and have been reading articles about the portrayal of its female antagonist, who is manipulative and psychotic. Some argue that this portrayal is problematic, since it plays into misogynistic stereotypes about women. In response, others argue that while such pernicious stereotypes do exist, it must surely be permissible to create a character who is both female and psychotic--indeed, to insist that this character type just can't exist would be sexist itself. Both arguments seem plausible to me, but I'm not sure how to reconcile them. Yes, it's bad to perpetuate negative stereotypes. At the same time, we must have some freedom to create characters that exemplify such stereotypes. Women are sometimes psychotic--we should be able to write about that. But then it seems like we never have justification to criticize any fiction at all, since this kind of defense may always be invoked in any particular case.

I think it's hard to answer this question without going into the details of particular narrative or representational works. It's an important question, but maybe not one for which a decisive philosophical answer is possible.

Let me point to one step in your message. You write of creating "characters that exemplify such stereotypes. Women are sometimes psychotic"; and so on. Now, in the step from the first of these sentences to the next, you show that you are using "stereotypes" as identical with "generalizations." It's true that many general statements one could say about women (or about any other group you choose to think about) are sometimes instantiated. Philosophy professors are sometimes self-obsessed; therefore, someone writing a screenplay about a philosophy professor (not as glamorous as the screenplay to "Gone Girl," I grant you) should be free to make that character self-obsessed.

But these feel like different cases, don't they? I think the reason is that a stereotype is not just a general statement about a particular kind of person; not even a general statement that people frequently say about that kind of person; but rather a general statement that people frequently say, and that is treated as the only thing you need to say about a given kind of person. And sometimes a narrative work gives its characters nothing but stereotypical traits; a single trait is permitted to constitute the entirety of that person.

Look at the husband in "Gone, Girl" by way of contrast. By now our exchange is full of spoilers, so I won't warn the reader of any more. Nick Dunne is treated as a stereotype in some ways. A failed writer teaches creative writing and has affair with a student. And yet he's not stereotypical. He also gets to be a sensitive son; an emotionally communicative brother; a bar proprietor with a sense of humor. Some general statements are true about him that are true of lots of other white forty-year-old men in small American towns; but other traits are specific to him. He has been fleshed out, which means not liberated from all stereotypical descriptions, but rather not reduced to them.

When I think about the woman in this movie, on the other hand, she is close to a one-note personality. (Interesting how the man's twin sister Margo is another kind of one note: no relationship of her own, she is purely a sister to Nick, loving him even when she rebukes him. At least she is a supporting character.) At every turn, Amy schemes and plans. She responds to almost everyone with hostility. Not her mental instability alone, but this presentation of her instability, make for the stereotype.

In short, I don't think writers are constrained by the paradox you describe. They can describe their characters in a lot of ways. But they should be wary of letting those descriptions degenerate into stereotype.


Philosophers: Is an artist's intention in a painting relevant to the assessment of the quality of the painting (or any work of art, for that matter)? Or is art to be assessed by itself? -Preston

I don't think anyone argues that the intention of the artist is linked with the quality of a work of art since if that was true my doodles are comparable to the best work of Leonardo da Vinci. It has been argued that intention is linked with the meaning of a work of art, while others think it is irrelevant what the artist had in mind.

I tend to agree with the idea that intention is irrelevant except in a historical sense where we are trying to understand how an artist operates. We can often assess objects aesthetically knowing nothing of the artist, the time they were made, for and by whom, and so intention cannot be a significant factor in appreciation of art.

Dear sir/madam

Dear sir/madam I would really appreciate it if you could help me please with finding the name of some books about early concept of the relation of art and morality. what I mean is after Plato and Aristotle to the time of Kant. Or if it is possible, please give me some names of philosophers during that time and then I'll try to find their books. I want to work on the early relation of them and later show how and why they became some how separate in later years. I guess Kant has the most effect on it but I still need more resources.

I wish you all the best in your research and thinking about art and ethics. Here are some contemporary thinkers you would find engaging: Noel Carroll --his "Moderate Moralism" (originally published in the British Journal of Aesthetics in 1996 is not the "latest" but Carroll is a clear, engaging writer and he references some of the contributors to the issues at hand. Jerrold Levinson has an excellent anthology on aesthetics and ethics, Berys Gaut is another philosopher of interest, and Martha Nussbaum has probably been the most well published contributor seeking to tie moral education together with literature.

In terms of early modern work, the "sentimentalists" (those who sought to understand both beauty and goodness) such as Hutchison would be good to investigate.

I have a short book "Aesthetics: A Beginner's Guide" that addresses the relationship of ethics, beauty and excellence or the value of art.

One reason for thinking that ethics trumps our concept of the autonomy of art (that is, thinking about the arts as quite independent of ethics) is that certain so-called "works of art" involving violence agains innocent persons would be described by most people as "crimes" "atrocities" "murder" rather than "works of art" or "works of art that involve unjust, criminal acts"... Imagine OJ Simpson claimed that he did kill his wife and her friend but this was a work of art (a happening). If this was taken seriously and art journals like Art in America ran reviews of the murder in terms of the event's aesthetic features, I think most people would think it was a bad joke or a matter of irony or, if serious, the magazine should be re-named Crime in America or Confused in America or some such variant.

A friend of mine thinks that we can define art as 'a statement of creativity'. I

A friend of mine thinks that we can define art as 'a statement of creativity'. I'm not sure I agree with him but am struggling with working out what a 'statement' is. Has any philosopher written about this question? Is it possible to define a statement?

You and your friend are on to a great topic that has a long and important history. The term art is derived from the Latin term for a principled way of making thing or in Greek from the term techne ... from this standpoint in the ancient world the term art would be shorthand for a work of art ore that which is produced through principled activity... In the ancient world, art was understood to involve imitation a painting of a horse should in some way offer us an image that imitates what it would be like to see a horse. As time moved on, we started to think of works of art as not imitations but as expressions of feelings or ideas. Your friend is on to something important: some works of art are intended to be and actually are making statements and to do so with creativity. One of the two most famous, well known paintings in the world are Michaelangelos ceiling painting of the creation. One may see this as both a work of creativity and expressing a doctrine humans are creations of God....and it may also function as presenting us many other things, expressing the artists Platonism his belief that the soul exists prior to the body or even as a statement about the importance of an older generation to pass along its power to a younger generation and so on. But it would be hard to classify ALL works of art as making statements and many creative statements do not seem to be works of art. So, some works of art are purely sensuous or too enigmatic to count as making statements think of colorfield paintings.

You can find ample sources that will present you with some stimulating proposals about what makes something a work of art in the online philosophical encyclopedias. I wrote an introduction to aesthetics with chapters that may interest you on works of art, how to recognize and evaluate them, is a short book: Aesthetics, A Beginners Guide

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