You are on page 1of 5

Margaret Brichant (6010067) Prof.

Justin Smith

Phil 339/A (Aesthetics)

Aesthetics Take-Home Final

Question 1:

Danto argues that philosophy “has a special subject matter,” and that not everything is an
appropriate subject matter for it. Art, however, he asserts, is “spontaneously susceptible to
philosophical treatment.” In support of this, he cites the myriad of philosophers throughout the ages
who have all concerned themselves with, at some point or another, a concern for the nature of art.
(Danto, Section 3, P. 54) Thus, he endeavors to set forth an explanation of why this is so; and, in so
doing, revealing something of the nature of art and philosophy. (Danto, Section 3, p. 54). Danto’s
treatment of this manifests itself in his distinction between his appraisal of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes
as a philosopher, and his appraisal of the same object as an art appreciator. What Danto finds
intriguing is the problematic relationship between the “real” Brillo boxes found in the grocery store,
and Warhol’s physically identical Brillo Boxes that have been transfigured into art. For, he
maintains, if they look identical to the human eye, then, he inquires, what distinguishing factor
makes one a work of art?

The philosophy of art, Danto asserts, was once so foreign to the art appreciator that, the mere act of
reading a philosophy of art required one to acquaint oneself with the system in question – that is, the
critical structures of the philosopher – only to realize, “that it may not have been worth the effort”
(Danto, Section 3, P. 55). What he means by this is that, the philosophical treatment of art was so
external to the nature of art that, its treatment of art left out or discarded the very nature of art as a
phenomenon. “The philosopher,” he asserts, “was apt to bring to bear the entire weight of his
system, and to pick from art only that which happens to be pertinent to his concerns” (Ibid.) In
short, the non-philosopher, he proclaims, is likely to face disappointed upon turning to what
philosophers have written on art; for, he explains, those aspects of art that are so entrancing to the
art appreciator is “often simply philosophically irrelevant” (Ibid.) He sums this point up nicely with
his description that “philosophers of art and the art-world itself, like facing curves, touch at a single
point and then swing forever in different directions” (Danto, Section 3, P. 56). Thus was the nature
of the relationship between philosophy and art until, he contends, art evolved in such a manner that
the philosophical questions of its essence have “almost become the very essence of art itself” (Ibid.)
With this evolution, he explains, the distance between philosophy and art has been narrowed so that,
rather than the one standing outside the other, external to it, they have become inextricably bound
together – where the philosophy of art, rather than addressing art externally, becomes “instead the
articulation of the internal energies of the subject.” (Ibid.) The relationship has become so narrowed
that, he argues, it, at times, is impossible to distinguish art from its own philosophy (Ibid.)

Danto’s argument on the nature of this evolution (that of the narrowing distance between the two
fields) can be adequately understood in his inquiry into the distinguishing characteristics between
Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and the “real” ones. The two objects, completely identical to the
perceptible eye, have been distinguished from each other in that one has been transfigured into a
work of art, while the other has not. Being that the two objects are identical in form, what
distinguishes them from each other must lie in something outside their mere appearances. This very
nature of indiscernibility between the two objects perfectly lends itself, he suggests, to the
philosophical question of what makes something art. Thus, rather than evaluating the work of art
through its appearance, style, etc., the contemplation of the object becomes more a philosophical
inquiry as opposed to an appreciation of the work artistically. Herein lies the heart of Danto’s
distinguishing factors between appreciating Warhol’s Brillo Boxes as a philosopher, and
appreciating the same object as an art appreciator. The contemplation of the work becomes above
and beyond a philosophical inquiry, perfectly suited for philosophical modes of contemplation such
that, he warns, “little if anything is left over for the pleasure of artlovers.” (Danto, Section 3, P. 56).

Question 2:

In his work Art and Its Objects, Richard Wollheim explores his conception of his “physical-
object hypothesis” and its potential shortcomings. Put briefly, the physical-object hypothesis
maintains that all works of art are physical objects. While he acknowledges the inherent differences
among works of art, he endeavors to determine some commonality among art works amidst their
myriad of differences. He explains that determining a unified definition of art as a whole is a near
impossibility; so, he takes as his starting point of inquiry, the question of what (if anything) different
works of art and different arts in general have in common (Wollheim, Section 3, p. 4). Thus, with
this, he sets forth the basic underlying hypothesis concerning varying arts, that works of art are
physical objects – “the physical-object hypothesis” (Wollheim, Section 4, p. 4).His work presents a
series of arguments against this theory, however, he is ultimately unwilling to dismiss the theory

To begin with, Wollheim contends that certain forms of art cannot be identified as physical objects
insofar as they do not exist in space and time – as, he suggests, physical objects must. (Wollheim,
Section 5, p. 4). Such arts would include works of literature, music, drama (which he deems
“types”), in which there is no single object of work – but, rather, a class of copies or performances.
Herein lies his first depiction of a potential shortcoming to the physical-object theory - in regards to
artworks of types, in which there is no individual object, can there truly be said to be a physical
object to the work if its expression is manifested in individual performances and copies? He explains
this position with the example of the work Ulysses. He explains, if one were to lose their copy of
Ulysses, if such a work were characterized as being a physical object, Ulysses would become a
lost work (Wollheim, Section 6, p. 5). Likewise, he continues, if a performance of Der
Rosenkavalier were taken to be the works physical object, and one did not like a performance,
then one would dislike Rosenkavalier (Ibid.) Such positions, he contends, are not acceptable in
constituting the work of art. To this argument, he replies, there is a difference between a work of art,
and a copy or performance of a work of art (Wollheim, Section 6, p. 6). The fact that there are
instances wherein the work and its copies are interchangeable does not mean that there aren’t
contexts in which they are not interchangeable. While this might appear to disprove the physical-
object hypothesis, Wollheim argues, this flaw was not so much in the theory, but in the selection of
the physical object that was selected for the work (Wollheim, Section 7, p. 6). In short, the validity
of the physical-object theory remains unaffected by the errors of misapplication. The copy of
Ulysses, insofar as it is a copy and not the original manuscript, if it should be lost, does not
terminate the survival of the art work. It is only when a copy is a single, unique object of the work
that a loss of this copy would lend itself to a loss of the art work (Wollheim, Section 7, p. 7). For, he
asserts, “a novel, of which there are copies, is not my or your copy but is the class of all its copies”
(Wollheim, Section 8, p. 8).

This gives way to Wollheim’s description of the aesthetic-object theory, which he sees as the most
compelling argument against the physical-object theory; namely, the view that a work of art is
characterized by its aesthetic qualities. Also explained through his explanation of the “ideal theory,”
which Wollheim characterizes as the view that the object of a work of art exists in the mind of the
artist alone – his intentions, conceptions, etc. – which is then manifested in the incomplete image of
its external object. However, Wollheim contends, this theory suggests that there is not some sort of
connection between the physical work of art that can be perceived, and its interpretations, expressive
qualities, and representational aspects. Wollheim sees an inherent flaw in this theory, for it ignores
the very nature of interpretation that is involved in the perception of a work of art. He refers to his
conception of “seeing-in,” which he explains as an individual’s interpretation of the marks, textures,
colors, etc. on a painted surface. One’s interpretation, for both the artist and the spectator, always
comes back to the medium of the work of art. Thus, the artist, he explains, begins with an intention
and has to determine how to manifest his intentions into a medium; the spectator, conversely, takes
the works medium as its reference point and construes meaning accordingly. To the question of
those works of art that are types, he asserts, its copies, performances, etc. are likewise interpretations
of the original object. Thus, in short, Wollheim sees the essential characteristic of all works of art –
types and individuals, as lying in its interpretive nature.

Question 3:

In his work Art and Its Objects, Wollheim endeavors to provide a philosophical analysis of the
nature of art that is rooted in human experience. Wollheim discusses what he refers to as “the Croce-
Collingwood Theory of Art,” or the ideal theory, which he explains as the theory wherein an artist’s
ability to create works of art lies in his ability to construe elaborate images or intuitions in his own
mind. According to this theory, Wollheim asserts, in order to arrive at the distinctively aesthetic,
“we must ignore the surface elements, which can equally be found in non-artistic or practical
contexts, and go straight to the mind which organizes them” (Wollheim, Section 22, p. 37)
Wollheim, argues against this theory, suggesting the absurdity of this conception of artistic creation.
For, he asserts, by reducing the work of art to something inner or mental, “the link between artist
and audience has been severed” (Wollheim, Section 23, p. 40). With this theory, there is no longer
an external object wherein both the artist and the spectator have equal access to.

Upon establishing the absurdity of this theory, Wollheim then introduces Freud’s idea wherein he
compares the artist with the neurotic (Wollheim, Section 50, p. 116). Both the artist and the neurotic,
he explains, turn away from reality “and lead a large part of their lives in the world of phantasy”.
However, he contends, the distinguishing factor lies in the fact that the neurotic continues to remain
in this world of fantasy, whereas the artist, he explains in Freud’s words, “finds a path back to
reality”. Wollheim interprets this claim to mean that the artist, in creating an external object of art,
“refuses to remain in that hallucinated condition to which the neurotic regresses” (Wollheim,
Section 50, p. 116). The artist, rather, unlike the neurotic, takes this world of fantasy as his starting
point, not the extent of this activity (Ibid.) Those motivations which initially lead the artist into the
world of fantasy, manage to become “harnessed to the process of making.” Thus, the artist grasps
those elements of his fantasy and, “out of the material of his wishes,” creates an object which “can
become a source of shared pleasure and consolation” (Ibid.) for the spectator. Herein lies
Wollheim’s primary critique of the Croce-Collingwood theory – it completely denies this aspect of a
shared external object. He quotes Freud in saying that, “the artist wins through his phantasy what the
neurotic can win only in his phantasy: honor, power, and the love of women” (Wollheim, Section
50, p. 117). Thus, according to Wollheim, a primary feature of art necessary involves the act of
renunciation: “renunciation, that is, of the immediate gratifications of phantasy” (Ibid.) For this
reason, Wollheim sees a fundamental aspect of the experience of art to lie in interpretation – both on
the side of the artist and the side of the spectator, where both relate their perceptions, feelings, etc. to
the external object of the artistic medium.
Question 5:

In Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Danto endeavors to provide a response to the

prevailing wisdom, set forth by Wittgenstein, that since there can be no discernable single property
common among all classes of art, a unified definition of art cannot be given. Danto sets forth the
Wittgensteinian thesis of art as the view that a definition of art cannot and need not be arrived at
(Danto, Section 3, Pp.57-8). For, he explains, the concept of art, according to this Wittgensteinian
philosophy, “excludes the possibility that there is a criterion for artworks and hence excludes that
there is some set of conditions necessary and sufficient to works of art” (Ibid.) Rather, this theory
suggests, art can be seen as “a logically open set of things that share no common feature” (Ibid.)
Danto credits to Wittgenstein this comparison between art and its classes with the nature of games –
for, he explains, games, like art, require some common uniting quality in order for them to be
considered games, or art works. However, according to this theory, rather than finding
characteristics that are common to all games or works of art, there are similarities, relationships, an
‘a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing’ (Ibid.) While, he contends,
there may appear to be that art, like games, have a common property, there remains the possibility
for a new game, or work of art, to come about that “we intuitively recognize as a game [or work of
art] though it fails to conform to our pretended definition.” (Ibid.) Herein lies the key aspect of this
theory, namely that, it is by appeal to intuition that we are able to discern what makes
something a game or work of art (Ibid.) Thus, the theory maintains, a definition of games, as with
art, is not necessary since we are able to determine those things which are games or works of art
without one. In other words, the theory equates the set of art works with the set of games – for, for
both sets, the definition need not and cannot be given. Danto then explains the next aspect of this
theory, that of “family-formulation classes.” (Ibid.) Namely that, games, as with works of art,
form a family wherein the resemblances amongst its classes “connect the members of a family
‘criss-cross in the same way’” (Ibid.) He then quotes Weitz’s extenuation of this concept which
maintains that, “if we were to actually look and see what it is that we call art, we will also find no
common properties – only strands of similarities.” (Danto, Section 3, p. 59).

However, Danto suggest, this identification with art as a family-resemblance term analogous to
games, is “almost appallingly ill chosen.” (Ibid.) For, he explains, the very nature of family
resemblance implies that there be some underlying genetic trait that constitutes their “family
resemblance;” and further, he continues, if this genetic trait does not exist in a particular, than that
particular cannot be considered a member of this family. (Ibid.) As to the notion that a definition of
art need not be defined, but can be discerned intuitively, Danto cites Kennick’s assertion that, should
one be instructed to extract all works of art from a warehouse, one would be able to do so without
the need of a definition, but on the mere basis of intuition (Danto, Section 3, p. 60). With the advent
of the 1960s, and such classes of art that are perceptually indiscernible from non works of art, this
theory of intuition falls short. In such situations, the man in the warehouse would be unable to
discern a work or art from its identical counterpart that is, for all respective matters, not a work of
art. For this reason, he concludes, it is not always the case that an artwork resembles a set of
artworks at all; but, rather, a work of art may be truly indiscernible from all other every day,
commonplace objects.

Works Cited

Danto, Arthur C. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge:

Harvard UP, 1981.

Wollheim, Richard. Art and its Objects. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.