The magic of allusion

I’ve been thinking about allusion recently, specifically the claim that “it is impossible to properly appreciate an allusion without considering what it is an allusion to.”1

Of course, it is impossible to understand an allusion in a semantic sense if you don’t know what it’s alluding to. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to properly appreciate it in an aesthetic or artistic sense.

Take this example, from the Paul Simon song “The Late Great Johnny Ace”:

I was living in London
With the girl from the song before

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Winding down the on-line class, art

My Philosophy of Art class this term was synchronous, meaning that students and I typically logged onto a real-time Zoom meeting for class. I had students fill out a survey about their experience of the course. One question was about how the on-line experience compared to a face-to-face class, and this was the result—

From the standpoint of learning and engagement, having this course on-line was ____ having it in person.

…better than… 23%…about the same as… 41%…worse than… 36%

I would have said about the same, but that’s not quite right. There were definite differences, but some were for the better. On balance, it was a good course. Although I was adapting to the format as I went along, I’m not sure it would have been a better course face-to-face in a classroom.

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Wombats and nineteenth-century opinion

Wombats were admired for their stumpy strength, their patience, their placid, not to say congenial manners, and also a kind of stoic determination. Occasionally they were thought clumsy, insensible or even stupid, but these isolated observations are out of step with the majority of nineteenth-century opinion.

Angus Trumble

In The Public Domain Review, Trumble recounts how Pre-Raphaelite artists were obsessed with wombats and attempts to suss out how they’d learned about them in the first place. Fitting the possible sources into the timetable of modern philosophy, it occurred to me that Kant might have known nothing at all about wombats.

A ridiculous wombat drawn by Edward Burne-Jones.

When artists are terrible people

Aesthetics for Birds has reposted a symposium from Daily Nous on the question of whether we can separate considerations about artwork from considerations about the artist who created it. By way of my summer reading and current procrastinating at the end of the semester, here’s a comment on the topic.

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🏅🗓 emoji issue

This month’s First Monday is a special issue on Histories and cultures of emoji vernaculars.

I haven’t read it all yet, but I enjoyed SooJin Lee’s piece on MoMA’s exhibition of the original emoji. Lee argues on institutional grounds that the exhibition is sufficient to make the original emoji count as art.

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LeWitt and le wisdom

Several years ago, my colleague Jason D’Cruz and I set on the idea of writing something about Goodman’s autographic/allographic distinction. In the course of our discussions, he introduced me to Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings. I went down a rabbit hole of reading about them. I saw the exhibition at MassMOCA. I devised a wall drawing of my own.

But our work went in other directions, and we didn’t publish anything about LeWitt or about wall drawings. After a reading group this summer, he commented that this was a shame. So I sent off a short item which has now appeared in Contemporary Aesthetics: That Some of Sol Lewitt’s Later Wall Drawings Aren’t Wall Drawings

The referee commented that this note could have appeared in a longer paper about conceptualism and the nature of art. It could have, perhaps, except that waiting on that longer paper to write itself would probably mean never publishing this bit.

LeWitt (1968) x Conway (1970); realized 2015; Loughlin Street; Albany, New York

Covers in HiPhi

Last Summer, Cristyn and I went down to Poughkeepsie to talk with Barry Lam about cover songs. The episode of his podcast featuring us dropped today.

Cover Me Softly

Barry has other guests who address historical and musicological issues. I’m chuffed, though, that the distinctions form my paper with Cristyn and Christy  provided the philosophical thread of the episode.

The whole episode is genuinely interesting and engaging, and I think I’d say so even if I didn’t figure in it. I was actually surprised that I didn’t wince at hearing my own recorded voice, testament perhaps to Barry’s skills as a recording engineer.

The puzzle of virtual art

If I recall correctly, Arthur Danto considers the example of an art deco bronze cat which is chained to the railing on a landing in the student center. This might, he says, be a recent artwork composed of a readymade bronze cat, a chain, and a pad lock. Perhaps a commentary on domestication. Nevertheless, the artwork is just the cat itself. Someone chained it to the railing when it was installed in the student center, so that nobody would walk off with it.

Similar examples arise in gallery contexts: It may be unclear whether two objects are one composition or two works simply installed near to one another. A toolbox might be left behind by a worker and a utility box may just be hardware that’s part of the gallery, or these things might be works or parts of works in the show.

I have seen these puzzles mostly raised in the context of ontology, to pose the question of what constitutes a work of art. Yet, it seems to me, there is an important issue in art appreciation.

Suppose, to return to the original example, that one finds it rewarding to consider the chain and cat together. They are visually interesting, let’s say, and one is lead to reflect in interesting ways on domestic animals and public spaces. It’s rewarding in just the kinds of ways that reflecting on an artworks is. Suppose furthermore that considering just the cat on its own is not especially rewarding. It is not an inspired sculpture, and it is of limited historical interest. One gets more out of considering the chained cat as if it were art than in considering the actual artwork.

What should we think about this? Several possibilities:

First, one might say that considering non-art as if it were art is perverse and confused. It is either a conceptual or moral failure. I find this implausible.

Second, one might say that the rewards of reflecting on the chained cat show that it must be art after all. We are supposing that nobody explicitly meant it to be art. We could say that the staff member who chained the sculpture had an unconscious intention to make art. Or we could say that one makes it art just by engaging in the rewarding as-if art experience of it.

Third, one might give up the idea that artworks are especially important to art appreciation. What matters are objects which can be encountered and interpreted in as-if art ways, regardless of whether they are actually art.