Davies, Ch. 3, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art



2.       Chapter considers arguments for and mainly against “Aesthetic Theories of Art”


3.       Aesthetic theories of art = “Aesthetic functionalism” = “aesthetic formalism” = “Aestheticism”

          a.       Developed in 18th and dominated in 1st half of 20th century

          b.       Emphasis on formal beauty and what is directly available to senses

          c.       Art’s perceptual features are the only features relevant to art appreciation

          d.       Only “aesthetic properties” (defined narrowly and distinguished from artistic properties) are relevant

          e.       Art appreciation requires adopting an “aesthetic attitude”

                    i.        Distinct frame of mind

                    ii.       “Distanced” and disinterested contemplation


4.       Critics who reject aesthetic theories include:

                    i.        Contextualists (“Ontological contextualism”)

                    ii.       Institutional and historical accounts of art

                    iii.      “Philosophy of art theorists”

          b.       Developed in 2nd half of 20th century

5.       Contextualists think that

          a.       Aes theories can’t account for art’s identity or meaning/content

                    i.        Aestheticism ignores important properties that make art what it is and give it the meaning and content it has

          b.       Identity and content of artwork depend on aspects of situation in which work created (context)

                    i.        Depend on art historical setting, social practices, conventions and institution in which art made and consumed

                    ii.       Depends on “artistic properties”

6.       Aes theories respond that focus on these artistic properties undermines aes perception




8.       Aesthetic properties

          a.       Objective features perceived in object of appreciation when approached for its own sake

          b.       Internal to object of appreciation (artistic properties are relational)

          c.       Perceptible properties directly available for perception

          d.       Aesthetic properties apprehended independent of cognitive information

                    i.        Recognition not require knowledge of matters external to object of appreciation

                    ii.       No information about circumstances under which object made is needed

                    iii.      No knowledge of intended or possible functions of object is needed

9.       (Frank) Sibley’s list of aes properties

          a.       Unified, balanced, integrated, lifeless, serene, somber, dynamic, powerful, vivid, delicate, moving, trite, sentimental, tragic, graceful, delicate, dainty, handsome, comely, elegant, garish, dumpy, beautiful

10.     Many aes properties have evaluative dimension

          a.       Negative–dumpy

          b.       Positive–dainty (compare: dinky)

          c.       Are some neutral? Like “somber” or “fragile”

11.     Aes properties are 2nd order (higher order) properties that are based on (supervene on) simpler, non-aes properties of aes object (e.g., the “base properties”)

          a.       Examples:

                    i.        “Unity” of a painting depends on its shapes, color fields and textures (the non-aesthetic base properties)

                    ii.       If painting is garish (i.e., tastelessly showy, flashy, strident colors) it is due to its colors and how it displays and combines them

          b.       Same base properties should lead to same aes properties

          c.       Change of base properties, likely affect aes character/properties


12.     “Artistic Properties” = art-relevant, but non-aesthetics properties

13.     Examples of artistic properties:

          a.       Symbolic properties: Dove carrying olive branch symbolizes peace

                    i.        Not among the painting’s perceptible content

                    ii.       Need to view painting in terms of conventions

          b.       Referential properties: Artworks that refer to other artworks; takes us beyond its internal features (e.g., appropriation art)

                    i.       E.g.: Glenn Brown ghoulish repaintings of Rembrandt’s portraits

          c.       Relational properties: Artwork can be original, influenced by earlier work, from artist’s middle phase, intend to emulate or reject previous art traditions, unusual because of its shadows

          d.       None of these are aesthetic properties, because they depend on non-perceptible features of the work and go beyond its internal features

14.     Expressive and representational features of art can be artistic (non-aesthetic but art relevant)

          a.       Realism of a representation require comparisons that take one beyond work’s boundaries

          b.       Idea that musical work expresses composer’s feelings also takes us beyond the work

15.     Artists’ intentions not relevant for aes theories, but can be artistic properties

          a.       If one assumes one can’t (immediately) perceive the artist’s intention in the artwork itself, then any feature of artwork that depends on artists’ intentions (perhaps what artwork expresses or represents or is about) also are not aesthetic (though they can be artistic properties of the work)


16.     Main question: In appreciation of art as art, are aesthetic properties enough or do we need to consider artistic properties as well?

          a.       Aes theory claims that aes considerations (and aesthetic properties) are all one needs to appreciate art as art

                    i.        Art’s artistic properties are not relevant to proper appreciation

          b.       Phil of Art/contextualism claims awareness of a work’s artistic properties is crucial to understanding it and to identify it as the work it is

17.     Davies takes philosophy of art view: True in general of art pictures that significance lies more in artistic content than aes content


18.     Properties of art that are neither aesthetic, nor artistic, that is, they are not art relevant = not relevant when appreciating art as art

          a.       Not all true statements about art are relevant to considering art as art

          b.       Examples

                    i.        That it is Obama’s favorite painting

                    ii.       That it was hidden from the Nazis in WWII

                    iii.      That it weighs 66 pounds,

                    iv.      That it’s the perfect size for covering a whole in the wall

                    v.       Controversial?

                              (1)     That it fetches $2 million dollars

                              (2)     That the artist hates it? Gave it to his daughter?

          c.       See below for discussion about how to identify these

19.     Summary: Three kinds of properties of art: (1) aesthetic (perceptual), (2) artistic (non-perceptual, but art relevant), (3) art-irrelevant properties (not relevant to the art considered as art)



21.     Aes attitude

          a.       Target aes properties of artwork (not artistic properties)

          b.       Percipient must adopt special mental attitude (aes attitude) in order to receive works aes properties

          c.       Distanced or disinterested contemplation

                    i.        Bracket out our natural concerns with respect to object’s usefulness, value, history, or classification

                    ii.       These distract one from proper experience of object

                    iii.      Cut out practical side of things

                    iv.      Examples

                              (1)     Irish author Oscar Wilde advocated art’s independence from practical matters like morality

                                         (a)     “Books are neither morally good nor bad, they are well or badly written that is all”

                              (2)     Mark Twain’s (Life on the Mississippi,1883): Experience that taught him to read the river (ripples indicating sandbars, sun and clouds as predictors of weather, trees as landmarks) destroyed his aesthetic experience:

                              (3)     “All the grace, beauty and poetry had gone out of the majestic river”

22.     Example of (alleged) problematic interest (according to the aes theory)

          a.       Man who doubts wife’s faithfulness needs distance to appreciate Shakespeare’s Othello without melding his own thoughts with it

                    i.        But: Isn’t art that relates to one’s own life and makes one think about own life powerful art?

                    ii.       Suggestion here is that this distracts one from the proper focus on art–forcusing on one’s own problems instead

                    iii.      Mightn’t one’s doubt about one’s wife allow one better insight into the mind of Othello?



24.     (Non-aesthetic) artistic qualities are crucial to art appreciation

          a.       Need to understand

                    i.        The kind of artwork it is

                    ii.       Social conventions about how to approach it

                    iii.      Medium of artwork and constraints/challenges it imposes

                    iv.      How artist amplifies or repudiates work or theories of others

25.     ***Political, religious, or moral messages conveyed by much art of all periods is far more crucial to its significance than are the aes qualities of its appearance

26.     Psychological approach to aes experience is a problem

          a.       To appreciate art, don’t need to adopt

                    i.        special frame of mind to appreciate art

                    ii.       distinctive mode of attention,

                    iii.      or ignore practical concerns

27.     Practical interests need not undermine appreciation of art

          a.       Person scrutinizing painting to pass art appreciation exams has different motivation from person who considers it for own sake

          b.       But to succeed in the exam, must regard painting in similar way

          c.       No reason to believe difference in motivation leads to difference in attention given or in the experience that results



          a.       Form depends on content, so pure aestheticism not possible


29.     Bruegel, Landscape with Fall of Icarus, 1555

          a.     Depicts Icarus (figure in Greek Mythology) falling from sky as flew too near sun and his wax wings melted; two prominent figures in painting are oblivious to his fate 

                        i.        Commentary on world’s indifference to individual martyrdom

          b.     Aes formalist says these facts about what painting represents and symbolizes are not relevant  


          c.        Davies: Perceiving formal properties depends on knowing this story (p. 62)

                    i.        “Only when we know what picture represents, does our attention shift to the inconspicuous legs in lower right and they become the work’s compositional center; we experience the rest of the scene as organized around them”

                    ii.       “Even strict formalist must acknowledge that picture’s composition is deeply affected by psychological weight place on lower right corner”

                    iii.      So examining the work’s form, requires knowing the story and this involves bringing something in from the outside.

          d.       Form depends on content: “General impossibility of separating formal factors from aspects of content not straight-forwardly visible”


30.     Deposition of Christ by Caravaggio

          a.       “Central compositional element is downward thrust of the arc created by heads and hands of the figures, a movement that ends in lifeless hand of Jesus”

          b.       If did not know head and hands have special meaning for us, would not focus on them and would not see this arc

          c.       So this formal property depends on understanding significance of head and hands of people

                    i.        Such external information is the type the aesthetic formalist claims is not relevant



          a.       Especially in the 20th century


32.     Maya Lin’s Vietnam’s Veterans Memorial (VVM) in Washington, DC

          a.       Seems impossible to account for the significance of artworks such as this memorial if put aside work’s social context and purpose

                    i.        If can’t consider whose names are listed and why

                    ii.       Little remains of work’s meaning and identity

33.     Reply: Aesthetic formalist on VVM

          a.       That VVM is a memorial is relevant to history and sociology of art

          b.       Technology of production, motivation for work, and significance of work to artist (and to public, Vietnam veterans, and U.S. history) are all legitimate concerns

          c.       But this social meaning not proper concerns if the focus is on the artwork

                    i.        Not part of its identity or content

          d.       Will take effort of will to set aside the powerful political and historical message of VVM, but it should be approached solely in terms of formal and sensuous properties

          e.       Davies: To focus merely on VVM’s aes properties is to miss almost everything that is important about the work


34.     Gates of Sorrow by Jim Gallucci

          a.       Statue commemorating the Sept 11, 2001 tragedy

                    i.        50 tons, 47 feet tall

          b.       The disinterested aesthetic contemplator must be ignorant of or ignore that it was

                    i.        Made to commemorate those who died

                    ii.       Shaped from steal beams taken from remains of the World Trade Center


35.     Robert Rauschenberg: Bed 1955

          a.       Robert Rauschenberg made an artwork of his bed by applying paint to it in 1955

          b.       Arthur Danto (a “Historicist” about art’s nature) argues that what can become art and the significance it has depends on when and where it is offered and by whom

                    i.        Leonardo Da Vinci could not have done same in late 15th century, as neither he nor his contemporaries could have conceived of the result as art, given the tradition of painting to that time

                    ii.       Child painting his bed at same time as Rauschenberg, not an artwork

          c.       Aestheticism tells us to ignore when, where and who produced artwork and so can’t make these points



          a.       If perceptually equivalent, share same aes properties

          b.       But if only aesthetic properties count, there are no important differences (in terms of aesthetic appreciation) between perceptually equivalent objects

37.     Duchamp’s Fountain and ordinary urinal

          a.       Aestheticism can’t explain (or ignores)

                    i.        Why Duchamp’s fountain is an artwork while other urinals from same production line are not.

                    ii.       That Duchamp’s fountain invokes the tradition of sculpting in white marble, which other porcelain urinals do not

                    iii.      Fountain offered a challenge to the presuppositions/prejudices of the artworld of its time, which urinals located elsewhere in the gallery do not

38.     Image appropriation examples:

          a.       Image appropriators produce works that resemble those of the artist whose pieces they appropriated

39.     Duchamp’s LHOOQ and LHOOQ shaved. For discussion click here

          a.       LHOOQ shaved is not perceptually different from Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but is obviously a completely different artwork and one’s aesthetic response ought to be completely different

          b.       LHOOQ shaved makes a witty connection both to LHOOQ and to Mona Lisa; Leonardo’s work contains no such reference

40.     Sherrie Levine displayed as her own artwork photos she has taken of art-photographs of others (e.g., Edward Weston)

          a.       About Levine

          b.       Examples of Levine’s work

          c.       Sherrie Levine’s photos make art-political point that women typically gain entry to the gallery via the works of male artists; and works she appropriates do not make this point

          d.       The original photo and Levine’s photograph of it are two different artworks yet perceptually the same,

          e.       Aes theories can’t explain what distinguished them as they display identical aes properties.

41.     Forgery (e.g., perceptually indistinguishable copy of a painting)

          a.       From critic’s viewpoint this matters much to its value as art

          b.       From aesthetic theory point of view, it is irrelevant that it is a copy

                    i.        Identical aes properties and equal value as art

                    ii.       If one is beautiful so is the other

                    iii.      That it is not treated that way, shows according to aesthetic theory that judgment clouded by political, moral and other factors that should have no place in estimation of art

          c.       Lessig’s (a proponent of “aestheticism”) list of irrelevant features (see article by Lessig in Arguing text)

                    i.        Forgery, age of artist when created it, political situation of creation, price it originally fetched, kind of materials used in it, stylistic influences, psychological state of artist, purpose of painting it

                    ii.       Not relevant to art as aes object, but to biology, history of art, sociology and psychology

42.     Further examples that show that non-perceptible factors of artworks play important role in identity and content of artworks

          a.       Compare Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ with an otherwise identical work that fills the bottle containing the crucifix with cream soda, not urine



44.     Reasons why much 20th century art fails to live up to expectations of aesthetic theory

          a.       This art downplays sensuous aspects of its appearance in favor of cognitive properties like wit and reference

45.     Some conceptual artworks have no aes or other perceptual properties or those they do have are irrelevant

          a.       Person who delights in gleaming whiteness of Duchamp’s fountain has missed the point; Duchamp went out of his way to choose a piece that is aesthetically neutral

          b.       Robert Rauschenberg’s (1953) exhibit of Erased De Kooning Drawing, a drawing by Willem de Kooning which Rauschenberg erased, has no aesthetic properties

          c.       Christo's 1962 Iron Curtain: Barricade of oil barrels in a narrow Paris street which caused a large traffic jam. The artwork was not the barricade itself but the resulting traffic jam

46.     Literature can’t be explained by aes theories

          a.       For although books present some aes properties to senses, they are not relevant to the story

          b.       Nor need one mentally imagine stories to appreciate narrative art

47.     Anti-aes art not easily accommodated by aesthetic theory

                    i.        This art sets out to eschew beauty for expressive power, semantic complexity or plain ugliness

                    ii.       E.g., Duchamp’s upside down bicycle wheel

48.     Concept of art must account for the 20th century artworks mentioned above

          a.       Can’t dismiss such cases as unusual or aberrant

          b.       Many have never been controversial and rest are usually now accepted as art

49.     That aes theory can’t account for this art, shows it is an inadequate account of art

          a.       Don’t blame them (19th century art theorists) as they did not have advantage of seeing how artworld unfolded.



          a.       Sociological, historical and cultural context in which art produced and consumed relevant to its identity and content

          b.       Just as can’t recognize which people are aunts and uncles solely on basis of appearance, can’t recognize the relational properties important to artwork from its immediately perceptible features

          c.       To identify an artwork and locate the properties that belong to it as art, it must be seen in relation to those things outside its boundaries that contribute relationally to making it what and how it is

51.     A central problem for contextualism: Once you allow some external relations as relevant to art, you will need some principle to rule out other external factors that clearly are not relevant

          a.       Properties and value of art that is not relevant to art as art (not relevant to their appreciation)

          b.       These "external values" of art include

                    i.        Monetary value

                    ii.       Fame given to some artists

                    iii.      Value of sculpture as a door stop

                    iv.      Sentimental value of art for a person

                              (1)     I like this song because I met my wife while it was playing



53.     If knowledge of this information should change (or affect) our understanding of the art object’s content, then it is relevant

          a.       For example, artworks title can be important:

                    i.        A painting depicts a man dressed as Napoleon and woman in early 19th century dress

                    ii.       At first we believe painting titled Napoleon and Josephine, later learn titled “The artist’s neighbors posing as Napoleon and Josephine before a fancy ball”

                    iii.      Should revise our view of work’s content; work represents quite different people than we thought

                    iv.      So we might need to know the title if we are to understand the work

54.     Facts about artist can be relevant

          a.       Artist’s intention can be crucial to nature/content of work

                    i.        Painting of one of two identical twins: Depends on artist’s intention which twin is the subject of the painting

                    ii.       Artists intention can be crucial in determining reference, allusion, quotation, parody, symbolism, irony and metaphor

          b.       Sex of artist relevant?

                    i.        Could/should the fact that a work was created (e.g., painted) by a female rather than a male effect our appreciation of it?

                    ii.       Artist’s gender sometimes does and other times does not affect work’s properties

                    iii.      Women may have distinctive interests and experiences apart from men’s that might affect content of an artwork

                    iv.      For example: When depicting scenes with violent domestic or sexual themes, women might express thoughts and feelings that would not be present in an outwardly similar painting done from a male perspective.

                              (1)     Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, ca 1612

                    v.       Women painting herself nude with fruit, unlike long tradition of male painters painting females, is commenting on the tradition and making fun of practice of comparing women with fruit

          c.       Other facts about author and her collection of works can be relevant

                    i.        Come from her juvenile or from her mature phase (depends on experience and age when done)

                              (1)     Is this relevant to appreciating art object?

                    ii.       Book 2nd in a trilogy, need to interpret/understand it in conjunction with other volumes (e.g., Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings)

55.     Facts about works genre

          a.       Film first taken to be a comedy for children and then realize it is a suspense thriller for adults

                    i.        Revise our understanding of earlier scenes and kinds of skills writer /director displays

56.     Facts about the medium of piece and what is involved in working with it

          a.       Miniature sculpture carved from diamonds or ice, sculpture in marble or white soap, or mahogany or dark chocolate

                    i.        Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather (Head of a woman sculpted from chocolate and soap)

                    ii.       Need to know that chocolate is luscious food that invites one to imagine licking and biting sculpture and that soap to be rubbed against the body

57.     Facts about a work’s wider social setting can be relevant

          a.       Knowing that a work is a critique, commentary, satire on actual political events or class manners can be important in under what it’s about

          b.       Picasso’s Guernica is more powerful when seen as a protest against the bombing of the town by fascist forces in the Spanish civil war



          a.       Reply: If gut level responses all that were needed, animals too could have aes experiences and would be as well qualified to appreciate art as we are; but they are not.

          b.       Reply: Appropriate experience of art not passive registering, but thought-filled interaction

                    i.        But although thinking about art object is necessary, thinking on one’s thinking about it is not

                    ii.       Knowledge facilitates direct exp of object w/o thinking getting in the way

                    iii.      One often learns relevant knowledge by exposure to art over time and not necessarily in formal study

                    iv.      Appreciation of art partial at first, but developed after that

Questions on Davies, Ch. 3: Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art


1.         Describe the views of those who embrace what Davies calls “aesthetic theories of art.”

2.         Describe the views of those (“contextualists”) who reject aesthetic theories of art.

3.         What is an aesthetic property? Give 5 examples of different aesthetic properties. Give an example of a positive and then a negative aesthetic property. Using an example, explain what it means to say that aesthetic properties are higher-order properties that are based on lower-level non-aesthetic properties.

4.         What is an artistic property? Give examples of 3 or 4 artistic properties of a work of art and explain why they are artistic and not aesthetic properties.

5.         Explain the difference between aesthetic properties and artistic properties.

6.         Are the artist’s intentions relevant to the artworks aesthetic properties? Why or why not?

7.         What does Davies think about the relative importance of artistic and aesthetic properties to the identity and content of artworks?

8.         Explain the “aesthetic attitude” and relate it to Mark Twain’s experience of the Mississippi after he learned to “read the water.” Do you think that adopting the “aesthetic attitude” is important for aesthetic experience? What does Davies think about the importance of appreciating art with a distanced and disinterested attitude?

9.         Explain how Davies attempts to show that aesthetic theory is internally inconsistent with the example of Bruegel’s Landscape with Fall of Icarus.

10.       Explain how Davies criticizes aesthetic theory using Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. How would the defender of aesthetic theory respond to this criticism. Who do you think is right?

11.       Using three example, explain why Davies thinks aesthetic theory has trouble accounting for perceptually equivalent objects.

12.       Is forgery a problem for aesthetic theory? Why or why not?

13.       What does Davies think about the person who “delights in the gleaming whiteness of Duchamp’s Fountain”?

14.       Are all external, contextual, or relational properties of an artwork relevant to its artistic appreciation? Discuss using examples of such properties that are arguably not relevant to the artistic or aesthetic appreciation of an artwork.

15.       Should the fact that a work was created (e.g., painted) by a female rather than a male effect our appreciation of it? What does Davies think about this? Do you agree with him?

16.       Is Davies a “cognitivist?” Does he think that gut level responses are sufficient for aesthetic appreciation? Does Davies think appropriate appreciation of rock music involves a gut level response or thought-filled interaction?

17.       Identify and describe the following: Duchamp’s Fountain, LHOOQ, and LHOOQ SHAVED; Picasso’s Guernica; Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ; Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, ca 1612; Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII; Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964); Chris Burden’s Shoot and Transfixed; Sherrie Levine’s photography.