Friday, October 31, 2008

What is art? Blog Series Part II

I decided that the second class of the philosophy of art series should involve actually looking at visual art and talking about it. I thought about taking the students to a local art gallery, and then decided that it would be fun for them instead to visit our local junior/senior high school (where they will be 7th grade students next year) and look at artwork by high school students. We have a fabulous art program at our high school, taught by an inspiring and dedicated teacher, Sean McCabe. Sean agreed to spend some time with the 6th grade students.
I took the two classes up to the high school in separate groups, and both had a marvelous time. We looked at artwork Sean had put together in a slide show, including work by Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Expressionist and other modern artists. We also walked around the art room looking at some very impressive work by high school students.
We talked about the difference between realism and more abstract art, and about such questions as whether everything an artist intends to be art is art, what makes art good or not, whether a work being original is sufficient for it to be art, and the nature of creativity. The visit seemed to help the students to deepen their appreciation of how complex some of these questions are, and looking at art while talking about questions of aesthetics allowed all of these questions to become more concrete.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What is art? Blog Series Part I

I'm going to write a series of posts about the philosophy of art unit I'm doing with sixth grade students this fall. Yesterday was the first session of the unit. We started by listing some of the things the students said they would consider art, which included paintings, sculpture, music, and poetry and also rocks, mountains, clothes and buildings. As the discussion ensued, most of the students wanted to say that anything could be art. We talked a bit about whether the basis for considering a work to be art can be that the artist thinks it is. I gave an example of stacking up dishes after dinner and saying to my sons, "Look at that wonderful work of art." Would that really be art? Most of the students, at least at first, seemed to want to say, "Yes, if you think it's art, it is art." Or that at least by explaining it in a certain way a person could transform almost anything into art. We also talked for a little while about whether art has to be created by human beings.

Next we discussed a puzzle adapted from W.E. Kennick's Art and Philosophy: Readings in Aesthetics: A famous sculptor buys 120 bricks and, on the floor of a well-known art museum, arranges them in a rectangular pile, 2 bricks high, 6 across, and 10 lengthwise. He labels the work Pile of Bricks. Across town, workers at a construction site take 120 bricks of the very same kind and arrange them the same way, wholly unaware of what has happened in the museum - they are just getting ready to use them. Can the first pile of bricks be a work of art while the second pile is not, even though the two piles are seemingly identical in all observable respects?

Most of the students’ first reaction to this puzzle was to say that both are works of art. But this became more problematic when the students wanted to say that the construction pile would only be a work of art because the sculptor’s pile was one. One student wondered how the same work could be art if something else existed, but otherwise not. Someone suggested that maybe the artist’s intention mattered here. If the workers did not intend their pile to be a work of art, maybe it couldn’t be one. Others said that if other people saw the construction site pile as a work of art, it could be one even if the workers who arranged the bricks didn’t think so.

I asked the students to draw or in some way fashion two pieces of blank paper so that one would be art and one would not be. Some of the students then displayed their work to the class and explained why one work was art and one was not. It was interesting: many students argued that even a work the artist thought was not art could be art -- paper folded in a certain way, a line drawn across a page. When someone held up a blank page, though, virtually all the students agreed that this could never be art. No one had worked on it, one student said. The exercise resulted in the students coming up with several ways to distinguish art from non-art: whether there was any effort put into the work, whether the artist intended that the work be a work of art, and whether the work is acknowledged as art in some way.

At the end of the session, we wrote down a list of the students' questions:

How is art created?
How did art come to be?
Is everything art?
Do opinions about art besides the artist’s opinion matter?
Why do we use the word “art?”

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

October birthdays

October 1 Catharine MacKinnon (American, born 1946)

October 4 Richard Rorty (American, born 1931)

October 14 Hannah Arendt (German, born 1906)

October 15 Friedrich Nietzsche (German, born 1844)
and Michel Foucault (French, born 1926)

October 18 Henri Bergson (French, born 1859)

October 20 John Dewey (American, born 1859)

October 29 A. J. Ayer (British, born 1910)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Can you test moral sense?

The Moral Sense Test is a Harvard University web-based study into the nature of moral judgments. The test is a series of moral dilemmas that purport to analyze the psychology behind our moral judgments. The site notes that the study "has been designed for all humans who are curious about that puzzling little word 'ought' — about the principles that make one action right and another wrong."

Some of the dilemmas in the test might be useful to use when talking about moral philosophy with pre-college students, and it would be interesting to discuss the test in general with students. Can a test like this really help us decide why some actions are right and others wrong? Anyway, taking the test doesn't take much time and is kind of fun!