For Art’s Sake: An Overview of Issues in Aesthetics

By Mark Anthony Lazara Dacela and Noelle Leslie dela Cruz

Objectives After reading this chapter, the student should be able to… 1. Understand why philosophers talk about art and beauty, and why critical thinking about the arts is important, 2. Trace the history of aesthetics as a specific area or branch of philosophy, 3. Familiarize himself or herself with some key theories of art and beauty, and situate these in the context of their period, 4. Delve into issues concerning how to define art, 5. Critically inquire into the connection, if any, between beauty and morality, or the aesthetic and the ethical, and 6. Look at art through the lens of the feminist critique and assess the claim that there is such a thing as a “male gaze.” Introduction: What is aesthetics? Have you ever wondered why some artworks appeal to you but not others? Have you ever stood in front of a painting or sculpture in a museum, puzzled as to why the object is considered “art”? Has a friend of yours ever liked a particular piece—say, a certain kind of music, or a building—and you couldn’t understand why? Have you ever heard of a certain work or artist causing controversy, and wondered what the fuss was all about? Has your school or government ever banned a book or movie, and you disagreed vehemently with the authorities’ decision? If you’ve experienced situations like these, then chances are you’ve pondered over issues in aesthetics. Aesthetics, which is concerned with questions concerning art and beauty, is the youngest area or branch of philosophy. It was first established as a distinct discipline some 1,500 years after metaphysics was first conceptualized in the West by the ancient Greeks. Generally credited to German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, “aesthetics” comes from the Greek word for sensation or perception, aisthesis (Freeland 2001, 6). When we weigh the competing theories about what makes something art, or identify the conditions for having an aesthetic experience, or try to define what “beauty” is, then we rely on a special human faculty that Immanuel Kant has called the aesthetic judgment. In other philosophical pursuits, such as when we inquire into the nature of reality, of knowledge, and of morality, we rely on logical argumentation to evince our points. We primarily make use of the cognitive mode of judgment. But when it comes to aesthetic matters, like whether there is such a thing as “taste,” for instance, more than logical argument is required to settle the issue. Thus, aestheticians necessarily delve into those aspects of human experience we sometimes call intuitive or feeling-based. The etymology of the word “aesthetics” itself demonstrates why this is so. In aesthetic matters, we pay attention to data from the five senses. 1

In this chapter, you’ll be encountering some main theories or definitions of art. The philosophers who are associated with each of these tend to address issues that are specific to the status or cultural understanding of art during their historical period. For example, when Plato or Aristotle refer to art, they generally mean the imitative, or mimetic, kind. Whereas in the contemporary time, there are many kinds of art—post-impressionist, abstract, and conceptual art among them—that do not attempt to imitate real objects. It is for this reason that contemporary philosopher Arthur Danto comes up with the concept of the Artworld. Meanwhile, both Immanuel Kant and Alexander Baumgarten were from the 17th-century, a period wherein the notions of the artistic genius and universal standards of taste were virtually unquestioned. Nowadays, postmodern and feminist critics would contest these concepts as sociallyconstructed. We’ll be surveying these main theories of art and the various ways in which each of them may be found wanting. This chapter also includes a section about the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Is there a correlation between the “good” and the “beautiful”? Or are they independent of each other? The answers to these questions are relevant to issues concerning censorship. Plato, for example, famously banned the poets from his ideal republic. He believed that their works— which for him are at least thrice removed from reality—aroused the wrong sorts of passions, that they had no edifying lessons or insights to offer. Meanwhile, Plato’s student Aristotle defended the arts as a necessary means by which people could experience catharsis, or the natural purging of intense emotions. Moreover, for Aristotle, a great deal of pleasure may be derived from the verisimilitude achieved by mimetic art. In the contemporary setting, this issue is rehashed in the debate between the Moralist Claim (the view that an immoral artwork is aesthetically flawed) and its opposite, the Immoralist Critique, which tends to separate ethical from aesthetic considerations. Finally, the last section discusses the feminist critique of art. Because women were traditionally cut off from the artistic enterprise, not having had the resources or the encouragement to pursue their craft, feminists argue that the vast majority of known works had been created by males. Moreover, women are historically the objects, rather than the subjects, of art: their bodies are portrayed through what cultural critic John Berger calls “the male gaze.” We’ll be examining these claims in light of specific examples of artworks from both past and present. Meanwhile, below is a summary of the different ways people have thought about art, and how these views have evolved due to changing media and ideas. Key thinkers from each period are also identified. Keep in mind, however, that these descriptions are but broad strokes in the canvas of aesthetics. Pay special attention to how these competing claims are eventually used in arguments concerning the value and status of particular artworks or art forms. After all, in virtually all of our pursuits—from watching a movie to choosing a restaurant to clicking an Internet ad—we cannot elude aesthetic questions.

Table 1. “Art” through the ages, and the evolution of theories about/of art1 Historical period

How “art” was viewed

For the key ideas in this chart, the authors are indebted to Blocker and Jeffers’ overview of the history of art in the introduction to their book, Contextualizing Aesthetics: From Plato to Lyotard (1998).


Ancient to The Greeks viewed art as technē or skilled craft. There was a medieval (600 BC- natural science to it, for example in the execution of vases and 1600s) urns. The images on these objects depicted mythological and human figures, as art primarily served a mimetic purpose, i.e. to imitate reality. This idea was carried over into the medieval and Renaissance times, wherein the latter period featured a revival of the ancient Greek and Roman styles. Key thinkers: Plato, Aristotle Modern (1700s – During the Age of Enlightenment, particularly in England and mid-1900s) Germany, the sciences and the arts went their separate ways. As per the Romantic notion of art for art’s sake, artistic objects came to be seen as having a primarily aesthetic—as opposed to utilitarian or logical—value. Aesthetics was established as a separate discipline in philosophy. Theories of taste were popular. Philosophers subscribed to the idea of the artistic genius, such as Beethoven and Mozart. The Romantic Sublime emerged as a category distinct from beauty. Key thinkers: Alexander Baumgarten, Edmund Burke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, the German Idealists, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, George Santayana, Benedetto Croce, John Dewey Contemporary (Mid-1900spresent) Various modern theories were rejected: That there exist aesthetic universals, that the aesthetic attitude is the only way to appreciate or experience art, and that there is such a thing as an ingrained or natural genius. The artistic canon was problematized by postmodern, poststructuralist, and feminist critics. Changes in culture and technology, in particular the invention of photography, meant that art came to have purposes other than the imitation of reality. Contemporary theorists are generally classified as Anglo-American or Continental. The former focuses on puzzles concerning the ontology of art while the latter takes off from the poststructuralist critique of aesthetic universalism and the aesthetic attitude. Key thinkers: Analytic - Monroe Beardsley, George Dickie, Arthur Danto, Jerrold Levinson, Richard Wollheim, Noël Carroll; Continental - Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Thodor Adorno, Jean-François Lyotard, Frederic Jameson

“The aesthetic” versus “the logical”: What makes art art? 3

The aesthetic refers to sense, feeling, or taste (anesthetic refers to the absence of feeling) while the logical is determined by its appeal to reason. The gap between the aesthetic and the logical signifies the dichotomy between emotion and reason. A simple account states that whatever is emotional is necessarily irrational—it cannot be explained by any rational concept. However, one can argue that the emotional, the aesthetic, is also framed within a certain set of rules, and may arguably follow from certain standards, which may or may not be rational but are standards nonetheless. The aesthetic judgment X is beautiful expressed in its explicit form is actually, I sense that x is beautiful. A judgment that appeals to sense, it seems, is not as universally verifiable as that which appeals to reason. While the latter requires that the conceptual definitions involved be both true and valid, the former does not necessitate the same requirement. But does the absence of a rational criterion (supposing that there isn’t one) reduce aesthetic judgments to mere subjective evaluations of objects? No, but only insofar as the aesthetic is disinterested, distanced even from subjective and cultural preferences. To this extent, the aesthetic cannot be viewed as means to a certain end (either personal or subjective), but rather as an end in itself. The seeming inadequacy of concepts in terms of articulating that which is meant to be viewed aesthetically pretty much shapes the discourse on aesthetics. Now consider these two questions: A. Are art objects necessarily experienced aesthetically? B. Are objects experienced aesthetically necessarily art objects? A and B articulate the problem of the missing aesthetic criterion: An affirmative response to the first question supposes that if an object is an artwork then it can only be experienced aesthetically. An affirmative response to the second assumes that anything experienced aesthetically is an artwork. Both are equally problematic. A does not offer a criterion for art, the kind assumed by the second question—if an object is experienced aesthetically, it is an art object. It begs the question, What makes objects artworks? B similarly does not offer a criterion for aesthetic experience. It begs the question, What constitutes an aesthetic experience? Alexander Baumgarten offers a way to sidestep this problem. He claims that art objects are made to be experienced aesthetically and are thus necessarily experienced aesthetically. This successfully qualifies important misconceptions; from this we can deduce the following: 1. Since artworks are made to be experienced aesthetically, the end of art, whatever it may be, can only be realized within this experience and that 2. While all artworks are meant to be experienced aesthetically, not all objects experienced aesthetically are artworks, only those that are made to be experienced as such (thus a regular chair experienced aesthetically is not necessarily an artwork). Baumgarten’s theory implies that artistic understanding, appreciation, and evaluation could only be successfully done if the audience or the critic allows herself or himself to experience artworks that way they are meant to be experienced: aesthetically, i.e. free from conceptual limitations, personal preferences, and cultural signification. The imitation theory of art: Does art imitate reality? 4

Both Plato and Aristotle understand art as imitation. They differ however in the way they view the nature and value of artistic imitation. Let’s begin with Plato. To understand his virulence against the arts, we must go back to his views regarding the nature of reality. For Plato, there are two worlds: the World of Forms (the realm of abstract ideas which cannot be seen or touched, but which are universally true) and the World of the Senses (the concrete world we live in, which contains physical things). The book you are holding right now as you read this is a physical book, and as such, belongs to the World of the Senses. After enough years have passed, it will be reduced to compost. But the idea of a book will endure. It is not a book that has a particular number of pages, genre, or color: in fact, it cannot be represented. There is only one of it, while in the World of the Senses there are innumerable books. Think of the Form of the book as analogous to a mold, as in a mold that shapes dozens of seemingly identical cookies. It is from the concept or Form “book” that physical books are based. Thus for Plato, all physical things are copies or instantiations of the universal Forms. Only the Forms are real; everything in the sensual world is a mere copy. So what does all this have to do with art? Given his metaphysical assumptions, Plato reduces artistic imitation to imitations of imitations. He argues that while the philosopher deals with eternal ideas (the unchanging Forms), the artist merely imitates things, things that are themselves imitations of ideas. Thus for Plato, most artworks if not all do not have any epistemic or cognitive value. No truth is revealed in art. Artworks are mere copies of copies and as such are several times removed from reality. In Book X of The Republic, Plato demonstrates this idea by citing as an example the painting of a bed. This is a copy of a physical bed, which is a copy of the carpenter’s idea of a bed, which in turn is a copy of the ultimately unrepresentable Form of a bed. Thus, art for Plato is several times removed from the truth. In his theory of knowledge called the Divided Line, he consigns the arts to the lowest level, i.e. the level of conjecture or the imagination. Consider the Form or idea of a horse. For Plato, it is more real than an actual, physical horse—a horse you can pat or ride. But there is something less real than the physical horse, and that would be, say, a drawing, effigy, or any sort of representation of it. The artist’s horse! Designating the arts as the antithesis of knowledge—in particular, the literary arts and the works of Homer, so popular among the masses during Plato’s day—the great philosopher advocated a strict censorship of the arts in his vision of the ideal state. Oh, and he also banished the poets from the Republic. Aristotle, on the other hand, does not subscribe to the Platonic dualism between a true ideal world and an imperfect physical world which is a mere copy of it. Thus, he does not take it against art that it is imitation: in fact, he argues that there is much pleasure to be derived from verisimilitude, a pleasure that is intrinsic to humans but not to animals. In The Poetics, he writes, “… though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies” (Aristotle 1998, 34). In Mme. Tussaud’s famous wax museum in New York City, people come to see the lifelike wax figures of famous personalities. Of course, we know that the figures of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are not really them, but representations of them. That we delight in art’s capacity to deceive us, and that we intentionally create artistic objects to mirror real things in the world, underscores Aristotle’s point. Finally, the popularity of digital animation and 3-D movies nowadays brings us closer and closer to a constructed “reality” that looks real— maybe even more real than the actual world, or what we might call hyperreal. Yet, we 5

understand of course that the planet Pandora in James Cameron’s 2010 film Avatar is fictional. Such is our intrinsic capacity for mimesis. So far, Aristotle sounds like the ultimate champion of art as imitation. This brings us to his defense of poetry. Whereas Plato banishes the poets from his ideal state, Aristotle points to another level of “truth” that the arts—poetry, in particular—inhabit. In the Poetics, Aristotle (1998, 38) argues that poetry is even more philosophical than history: … the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e., what is possible as being probable or necessary…. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. When we say that there is such a thing as truth in fiction, we mean not that Abel and Cain really existed outside of Biblical myth. We mean rather that the story of their relationship represents a very real dynamic between brothers, and a very real motivation for murder. History has proven the Abel/Cain story true many times over. Finally, also in his defense of art, Aristotle stresses the capacity of some artworks as imitations of reality to produce certain emotional responses that may move their audience to act virtuously. He argues that an artwork, in imitating reality, generates certain emotional responses in its audience. Such emotional responses however are not ends in themselves. He claims that aesthetically-generated emotional responses may move a person to actualize certain potentialities by purging us of negative emotions such rage, fear, envy, and the like (e.g. a work of tragedy). He identifies this purging of emotions which is a constitutive element of artistic imitation as catharsis. A person who watches a soap opera may be so moved by the plight of the characters that he or she may actually cry along with them. For Aristotle, the passionate emotions that the tragic plays of Sophocles evoked among the ancient Greeks are natural and even healthy. Contrast this to Plato’s position, which is that theater arts of his day encouraged the “wrong” sorts of emotions. Again, the crucial difference between Plato and Aristotle has to do with their philosophical frameworks: Plato’s idea of a just society is very rationalistic, one that has no place for the unruly passions. Aristotle on the other hand, having rejected the World of Forms, infuses telos (in Greek, purpose or end) into matter. Consequently, human nature— with its attendant passions—is purposeful, even and especially our unique capacity for and appreciation of the arts. So far, we’ve seen two classic accounts of art as imitation. In the contemporary period, however, many examples of art cannot be explained by this theory. It is understandable that the ancient Greeks defined art as mimesis: for them, art was something that faithfully rendered the world around them, as in the painting of human figures on an urn. But what are we to make of today’s abstract works, conceptual art, and performance art that do not seem to be imitations of anything? Jackson Pollock’s famous piece simply entitled Number 31 is an eight-feet-ten-inchby-seventeen-feet-six-inch portrait of black, gray, and white drips of paint. The artist created it by standing on the canvas, going on a trance, and splattering substances—including oil and enamel—on his masterpiece. The painting is valued at millions of dollars. For now, let’s set aside the question of what makes art beautiful, and whether beauty is a necessary condition for art. These issues will be tackled in the next section. Let’s focus on the theory of art as imitation. When we walk into a museum, we are bound to see pieces— 6

sculptures, paintings, etc.—that don’t seem to resemble anything, or which we may not be able to comprehend to begin with. Yet we know that somehow, these are considered “art.” But they are not copies of anything. Thus, to account for modern and contemporary art, we need a more sophisticated theory than the imitation theory. Contemporary philosopher Arthur Danto offers a new way of thinking about art, not as imitation, but as a real object itself. First, he observes that the development of modern art, in particular the advent of post-Impressionism, reflects a changing goal of art. During the ancient and medieval times, artistic masterpieces were valued and appreciated for their realism. But nowadays, artworks such as those of Vincent van Gogh and the abstract expressionists would seem to portray instead the invisible inner world of emotions. Still others, like the ordinary objects incorporated or transformed into art by the Dadaists, would seem to convey—or spring from—a concept. Thus, in place of what he calls the Imitation Theory of Art (IT), Danto (1998, 146) offers an alternative, which he calls the Real Theory (RT), according to which “the artists in question were to be understood not as unsuccessfully imitating real forms but as successfully creating new ones….” The beauty of this theory is that it explains a phenomenon such as Rauschenberg’s bed. This is a bed that hangs on a wall and streaked with paint. Created in 1955 by Robert Rauschenberg, it is displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. What is striking about it is that it is not an imitation of a bed. It is a bed. A similar example is Damien Hirst’s 1991 piece, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which consists of the body of a shark immersed in formaldehyde. This artwork is not an imitation of a shark; in fact, it contains a real shark. Does this mean that according to RT, the art object and the real object are identical? Obviously, there is a difference between a bed that hangs in a museum and the bed you sleep in in your bedroom, which probably does not contain paint streaks. Sharks swimming in the ocean are not marinating in preservative chemicals. Thus, the Rauschenberg and Hirst pieces belong to a special class of objects, i.e. artworks that contain real objects as parts of themselves. With regard to these, Danto (1998, 148) observes, … not every part of an artwork A is part of a real object R when R is part of A and can, moreover, be detached from A and seen merely as R. The mistake thus far will have been to mistake A for part of itself, namely R, even though it would not be incorrect to say that A is R, that the artwork is a bed. It is the “is” which requires clarification here. The “is” that Danto introduces is none other than the is of artistic identification. This peculiar designation of something as an artwork is a product of the historical development of art itself. Due to competing artistic movements, the opinions of critics, the decisions of museum curators, the whims of the market, and so forth, “art” is now determined by “an atmosphere of artistic theory”(Danto 1998, 150). He calls it the artworld. This goes to show that in the contemporary time, we can say that we have certainly come a long way from thinking of art as imitation. Kant’s aesthetics: Is taste subjective?


In The Critique of Judgment, Kant offers an analysis of taste. He observes that while feelings are always involved when we make judgments of taste, which usually takes the form: x is beautiful; such judgments still enjoy a kind of universality. To explain this Kant distinguishes between subjective taste and disinterested taste.

Subjective taste is grounded on the preference of the subject insofar as it serves his or her subjective interests. Disinterested taste is free from any interest and as such it enables us to experience the beautiful as beautiful, the pleasurable as pleasurable. Kant argues that aesthetic judgments, grounded on disinterested taste are universal but not in the same sense that ethical judgments are, the latter usually takes the form: x is good. The latter enjoy a postulated kind of universality for what follows from the categories of reason is universally valid. Aesthetic judgments, on the other hand, enjoy impunitive universality. When I make that claim that x is beautiful, I do so with impunity. That is, I promise that all rational subjects would make the same judgment about x. In The Critique of Judgment (1998, 84), Kant explains,

A man says that thing is beautiful, he does not merely expect the assent of others to his judgment of satisfaction because they have agreed with him before; he demands it of them, He blames them when they judge differently, and denies their taste …

In this sense judgments of disinterested taste are subjective (relative to all rational subjects and is dissociated from the object insofar as they are only directed to the representation of the object) and universal (they enjoy impunitive universality like most empirical judgments).

The representation of the object (thing in itself) is the object of disinterested taste.

But if aesthetic judgments are not conceptually verifiable, what then determines their validity? Who determines the rules of art? Kant argues that nature does, but its medium is the genius. The genius is the innate capacity to determine the rules of aesthetic judgments. These 8

rules in turn become normative frameworks but by their very nature are never congealed; the genius can always break them for nature does not disclose itself in one instance.

The moralist critique of immoral art: Can bad art be beautiful? Moralists claim that immoral artworks are aesthetically flawed. There are many arguments offered in support of this claim but perhaps the most notable of these is the Merited Response Argument. This argument was first advanced by Berys Gaut (1998).

Daniel Jacobson (1997, 170) states it in this form:

1. Immoral art works express a pernicious ethical perspective, which involves calling for attitudes and feelings it would be wrong to have, even in imagination. 2. These responses are never merited. 3. It is an aesthetical flaw for a work of art to call for an unmerited response. 4. Therefore, immoral art is aesthetically flawed.

Premise 1 and 2 are problematic. To make the problem explicit let’s state premise 1 as: a work of art is immoral if it calls for feelings it would be wrong to have. From this it follows that such feelings that are wrong to have are never merited (restatement of premise 2). But what does merited mean?

Let’s assume that by never merited premise 2 implies that the audience will never emotionally respond in the way the work prescribes. Suppose that the work prescribes feeling A, premise 2 suggests that the audience will never feel A. For example, in the Showtime TV series Dexter, the main character is a serial killer. It follows that any rational person ought not to feel sympathetic toward a psychopath. Yet, Dexter fans tend to cheer him on in his adventures, because of the way the story is told. The moralist, appealing to the merited response argument, would say that they would not feel sympathetic, even if the show prescribes this feeling. Yet they do. Thus, to this argument in favor of the merited response position, one may object that whether or not an audience feels or desires to feel the emotional response an ethically defective work prescribes is determined by their dispositional state and/or circumstance. Therefore, if the audience renders feeling A appropriate, he or she may feel A. If this is the case then the conclusion doesn’t follow, which renders the argument flawed. 9

Now let’s assume a different interpretation of never merited. Supposing by this the moralist is implying that a work of art that prescribes an unethical emotional response does not deserve any positive emotional response. It follows from this that, it is wrong to feel A (supposing that feeling A is a positive emotional response) and thus this feeling never be merited. Hence, the moralist, appealing to this argument, would claim that sympathy with Dexter is wrong and therefore would never be merited. However whether it is wrong or not to feel an emotion may be based on dominant paradigms determined by cultural contexts (religious, social, familial, etc.). Christians, for example, have been taught that killing is wrong. So whether or not the audience considers it wrong or not to feel or desire to feel the emotional response an ethically defective work prescribes is actually determined by their dispositional state and/or circumstance. If this is the case then, not in all cases would the audience consider it wrong to feel the feeling the work prescribes. So in some circumstances that feeling would be merited. The moralist argument then would be rendered defective.

However a third possible interpretation of never merited could be offered. Supposing that by never merited the moralist implies that the emotional responses an immoral artwork prescribes are never warranted. For example, in Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List, there is a scene wherein the Jews are forcefully and inhumanely evicted from their ghetto by the Nazi officers. Normally, such a scene would evoke tears. However, it is not always the case that a member of the audience gets teary-eyed. Instead of being weepy, a more pragmatic person might feel more angry or even stoic. Thus, to this one may object that whether or not an emotional response is warranted is determined by the dispositional state of the audience (to whom the response may or may not be warranted) and the circumstance (in which it may or may not be warranted). Hence if the audience considers that the work warrants feeling A, then he or she may feel A.

All three objections appeal to the assumption that whether or not its audience feel or desire to feel the emotional response an immoral artwork prescribes is determined by their dispositional state and/or circumstance. It should be noted however that this issue is far from being settled. The question remains whether artworks ought to be evaluated on moral terms, or in other words, whether their aesthetic value supervenes on their ethical value.

The feminist critique of art: Is the artistic gaze male? Can you name a famous female artist other than Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keefe? Have you ever wondered why artists, from the Renaissance masters to the pioneers of contemporary artistic moments, tend to be male? How does gender factor into the artistic process and the formation of the artistic canon? Have you ever looked at a billboard and wondered what a provocatively-dressed woman had to do with, say, a brand of paint? Have you noticed that it is women who tend to be sexualized in 10

art, and if men are sexualized, they also tend to be feminized? Are you familiar with Michelangelo’s famous sculpture, David, and can visualize the openness and effeminate passivity of its form? The feminist critique of aesthetics addresses the above questions. It emphasizes the role of gender oppression in the formation of the artistic canon, as well as in the way that women and men are portrayed in art. In other words, feminists examine how art has constructed gender and how gender has constructed art. Because of our patriarchal history, women the world over have been marginalized in the art world. For example, during the Renaissance, master artists typically trained their sons but not their daughters, since the latter were primed instead for a life of domesticity. For reasons of propriety, women were once barred from studying nudes in the academies. Also, as Freeland (2001, 90) narrates, 19th-century painter Rosa Bonheur “actually had to get legal permission to wear trousers while trudging through muddy streets of Paris to visit slaughterhouses and horse stables for her animal studies.” To cite another example, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser were among the founding members of the British Royal Academy in 1768. However, in Johann Zofanny’s famous portrait of the academicians, Kauffmann and Moser were not among the artists surrounding the male models. All that could be seen of them were their painted busts on the wall (Chadwick 1990, 7). The artistic institution indeed perpetuates this sexist bias. A painting initially thought to be by Jacques-Louis David was appraised at a lesser value after it was attributed to his protégée, Constance Marie Charpentier (Chadwick 1990, 23). In the Philippines, the case of Boholano painter Hermogena Borja Lungay is illustrative. Lungay had enrolled in the prestigious Fine Arts program of the University of the Philippines. The only woman in class, she was a contemporary of Filipino National Artist Napoleon Abueva. She graduated on top of the class and was given the “Art Student of the Year” award. When she got married, however, she abandoned painting and devoted herself to the care and raising of no less than nine children (see Evasco 2006). Indeed, as Chadwick (1990, 10) writes, Attempts to juggle domestic responsibilities with artistic production have often resulted in smaller bodies of work and smaller works than those produced by male contemporaries. Yet art history continues to prefer prodigious output and monumental scale or conception to the selective and the intimate. Feminists thus study the causes and consequences of women’s marginalization in art. As a corrective measure, they also try to unearth the works of female artists who, for gender-related reasons rather than actual skills, had not achieved the same status as their male counterparts. In this way, the feminist critique of art reveals how gender roles influence society’s notions of what counts as good art and who counts as a good artist. On the other hand, with regard to how art constructs gender, John Berger’s famous essay, Ways of Seeing, sets the tone for the feminist critique of the so-called male gaze. Berger bases his claims on a certain tradition in painting, i.e., European nude paintings from the Renaissance to the modern period. He analyzes the typical poses—including the facial expressions—of the women in these paintings, and points to the similarity between these and contemporary images. This suggests that nothing much has changed in our manner of seeing (i.e. constructing) women. This particular manner of seeing is through “the male gaze,” a direct consequence of a patriarchal convention. Famous nudes such as those by Tintoretto, Lely, Bronzino, Ingres, and 11

Titian, aside from having been painted by male artists, were commissioned by male “spectatorowners.” The latter paid for the creation of the artwork and were usually the paramours of the women used as models. Thus, the painting as a whole caters to the gaze of the male patron. Berger distinguishes between the sexual subject and the sexual object. The former is merely naked, depicted realistically as herself, and typically in motion. Meanwhile, the latter is defined by her passivity; the artistic convention of the nude eroticizes her availability and submission to the viewer who is assumed to be male. Even though she has no clothes on, nonetheless “Nudity is a form of dress” (Berger 1990, 54). That is to say, she is not portrayed as herself, but in terms of an external and possessive gaze. Thus she may be said to be donning a layer of selfconsciousness, which is her awareness of being looked at. One of the examples Berger discusses has to do with the woman depicted as Venus in Bronzino’s Allegory of Time and Love (c. 1540). Here she is shown in a kneeling position while kissing Cupid, her torso unnaturally twisted for full frontal exposure. Berger (1990, 55) writes, “The way her body is arranged has nothing to do with their kissing. Her body is arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. The picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality.” This way of seeing pervades contemporary media, from women’s magazines to maleoriented pornography. The seductive, eyes-half-closed expression; the vulnerability of the pose; the orientation of one’s sexuality not for one’s own pleasure but for that of the viewer: these are the traditional hallmarks of our images of women (and of some men who are similarly exploited). Implicit in this manner of seeing is the hierarchical relationship between the one who assumes the male gaze and its object. Even women see themselves and other women in terms of the male gaze, since this has become the cultural convention for feminine beauty. Berger’s landmark analysis shows how our cultural norms seep into our visual images, and how these in turn reinforce the cultural norms. In describing the essential attributes of masculinity and femininity, Berger (1990, 47) wrote, “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” This is not to say that gender roles have not changed over the last forty years since Berger published his essay. Certainly, women, especially in the more privileged parts of the world, have been empowered in various ways by the feminist movement. However, our cultural understanding of masculinity and femininity, especially as these are transmuted into visual imagery, has not changed appreciably. The feminist critique of art thus encourages a critical awareness of how gendered bodies, our own and others’, are looked at, and of the necessity of subverting or transforming this gaze.


References: Aristotle. 1998. The poetics. From Contextualizing aesthetics from Plato to Lyotard, ed. by Gene Blocker & Jennifer Jeffers. California: Wadsworth Publishing. Berger, John. 1990. Ways of seeing. New York: Penguin. Blocker, Gene & Jennifer Jeffers, eds. 1998. Contextualizing aesthetics from Plato to Lyotard. California: Wadsworth Publishing. Chadwick, Whitney. 2007. Women, art, and society. UK: Thames and Hudson. Danto, Arthur. 1998. The artistic enfranchisement of real objects: The artworld. From Contextualizing aesthetics from Plato to Lyotard, ed. by Gene Blocker & Jennifer Jeffers. California: Wadsworth Publishing. Evasco, Marjorie. 2006. Ani: The life and art of Hermogena Borja Lungay. Manila: University of Santo Tomas. Freeland, Cynthia. 2007. Art theory: A very short introduction. USA: Oxford University Press. Gaut, Berys. 1998. The Ethical Criticism of Art. From Aesthetics and Ethics, ed. by in Levinson, J. Cambridge: CUP. Jacobson, Daniel. 1997. In praise of immoral Art. Philosophical Topics 25 (1). Kant, Immanuel. 1998. The artistic enfranchisement of real objects: The artworld. From Contextualizing aesthetics from Plato to Lyotard, ed. by Gene Blocker & Jennifer Jeffers. California: Wadsworth Publishing. Plato. 1998. The republic. From Contextualizing aesthetics from Plato to Lyotard, ed. by Gene Blocker & Jennifer Jeffers. California: Wadsworth Publishing.


Discussion Questions: 1. Critically assess Plato’s rejection of the literary arts as antithetical to truth and knowledge. Do you agree or disagree? Explain, citing examples in support of your position. 2. What can you say about Aristotle’s defense of art as mimesis? Do you think it is an adequate counterargument to Plato’s charges? Why or why not? 3. If we agree with Danto that the Artworld determines art, wouldn’t this render the status of art relativistic (i.e. the value of art depends on the whim of the people “who matter”)? If your answer is no, why not? If your answer is yes, can you think of a solution to artistic relativism? 4. Do you agree with Kant that taste is disinterested? How would Kant account for our varied taste in music? 5. Do you think of Mideo Cruz’s Poleteismo is immoral? Do you think it has any aesthetic value? Explain your answer. 6. Evaluate the feminist argument that gender is a factor in the perception and designation of certain works as artistic masterpieces. Do you think gender (and other factors like race or class) matters, or can good work be automatically recognized by virtue of being intrinsically good, in spite of gender, race, or class? 7. Do you think there is such a thing as a “male gaze”? Why or why not?

Suggested Activity 1. Go to a museum and observe at least three ‘artworks’ then answer the following questions: a. b. c. d. Are these objects art objects? Explain your answer. Do these objects represent reality? Explain your answer. Are they immoral or moral? Explain your answer. Are they beautiful? Explain your answer.



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