Intro to Philosophy

Aesthetics: the Philosophy of the Arts

Professor David Clowney Rowan University

Course lecture pages
Course Guides
Reading Guides
Writing Guides
Topic Questions
Philosophers, artists and critics on art
Arts on line
Home | Email


Course Syllabus for Philosophy 150931102 - Aesthetics WI
Spring 2018 - Rowan University
Bunce Hall 104 - Monday and Wednesday, 2 - 3:15 pm
Professor David Clowney

Philosophical Aesthetics is the philosophy of art, art criticism, and aesthetic experience more generally. Just what that kind of experience is, and what makes it so special, has been the subject of much discussion. We'll join that discussion in this class.

My goal in the course is to help you think and write about the arts and your aesthetic experience in some new ways. It should enrich you and help you be a more active, creative participant in the social practices and discussions that keep the arts alive and shape our aesthetic experience. Many students in the arts have found that it helps them think about their craft, and many other students have found it an entry point to a richer experience of the arts.

This course has prerequisites, including completion of Comp II (because it is writing intensive) and either two arts courses or one philosophy course. The art and philosophy requirements are there because our subject matter will mostly be the arts, and our methods will mostly be philosophical. Students with no background in either set of disciplines may find themselves at a disadvantage in understanding what we are doing. (For a quick introduction to philosophical methods in aesthetics, see the handouts on Blackboard, "What philosophers do," and "What's Aesthetics?")

I have taught this course for most of my Rowan career, since I revived it in the early '90's, and have put more work into it than into any of my other courses except for Environmental Ethics. But in spite of the benefits many students have received, I've become increasingly dissatisfied with the results I'm getting. Class discussions aren't working, because students aren't doing or understanding the readings. I've decided that it's time for a major revision, and you are going to help me do it. (You are the second class to participate in this experiment.) Here's what will change:

  • There will be much less reading, with shorter selections, and more time in class going over the readings to make sure you understand them and can use them to think about the arts.
  • Much more focus on particular art works/aesthetic experiences (e.g., of nature), with much more in-class discussion of those works and experiences.
  • We'll start with the works, and then move to the readings, and find connections between them and the works.
  • At least some of the works will be chosen by you, with my approval, and together we'll find readings that shed light on them. That means that the syllabus is still being defined, and is subject to change. I'll give you at least a week's notice before any new work or reading is introduced. But expect the vitality and dynamic uncertainty of a work in progress for this semester's course!
  • The works and the readings will be our door into a number of aesthetic themes, questions and issues that make up the field of philosophical aesthetics.
  • The assignments will be different. Instead of the seven reading reports covering a large number of readings that I used to assign, I will assign two essays in which you reflect on one of the readings, and use it to reflect on one of the works we look at in class. The other assignments will be unchanged. You will write two critical essays, and a final project. Each of these will go through a process of rough drafting and peer review. Finally, you will all submit five ungraded event reports. These can be reports on activities we do as a class (like our First Friday expeditions the first Friday night in February. They can also be reports on any other activity or event that you can plausibly connect to the class (e.g., a TV show or episode, an advertisement, a painting or piece of music, a play, an installation, the aesthetics of a gourmet meal -- if you're not sure, ask me if what you have in mind can count.) See below for the list of all assignments with their point value out of 100.
  • I expect you to do the readings I assign, since they will be short, and to come to class prepared to use them to think about art and aesthetics.

Assignments and grading:
  • Reading, Viewing, and Listening Assignments will be made week by week.  Other assignments will be due periodically. See the list below, and the week by week class schedule, for a list of these asssignments with their due dates. They will also ber posted on Blackboard. You are responsible to know what they are, and to keep up with them, whether or not I announce them in class.
  • Two critical essays, worth 15 points each, with rough and final drafts, are due on the dates listed below (2 points for doing the rough draft, 13 possible points for the final draft). See Blackboard for instructions on writing these. Each essay will describe and evaluate a particular art work or aesthetically charged event, and will go on to discuss a particular aesthetic issue that is relevant to the work or event. See the list of Aesthetic Topic Questions on the course website for some of the issues (you may think of others; if so run them by me to make sure they count).
  • Two essays where you report on a reading, and use its ideas to discuss a particular work of art or aesthetic experience (15 points each).
  • One final project (30 points), done in stages, with a proposal, a class report, a rough draft and a final draft. There are many ways to complete this project; see below for some guidance.
  • Five event reports, worth 1 point each.
  • Class participation (5 points, determined by attendance, participation in discussion, coming to class prepared).
Here is the schedule on which these assignments are due:
  • 1st Critical Essay: Rough draft 2/7, Final draft 2/14
  • Term Project Proposal: 2/21
  • 1st Reading Report: 2/28
  • 2nd Critical Essay: RD 3/7, FD 3/21
  • 2nd Reading Report: 3/28
  • Term Project Rough Draft: 4/11
  • Term Project Final Draft: 5/2
  • Project Presentations: 1 or 2 per class, beginning 1/31
  • 5 Event Reports: due 4/25, can be submitted any time
Course Policies:

You must meet all deadlines and complete all assignments.   Missed deadlines may be penalized by as much as a letter grade. That goes for proposals and rough drafts as well as for final drafts and oral presentations. Papers more than a week late will not be accepted unless you have negotiated an extension in advance. Final projects will not be accepted without prior review of a rough draft. If you have trouble meeting course deadlines, please get in touch with me about your difficulties, and let's see what we can work out.

All work must be submitted electronically through Blackboard in a form I can read. Acceptable file formats are .doc, .docx, .rtf, .txt, and .pdf. If you're having trouble with Blackboard, please e-mail your work to me, and always keep a copy. Please don't submit hard copies of your work to me.

Plagiarized work will be severely penalized, and your plagiarism will be reported to the Provost's office. If you're not sure what counts as plagiarism, see the handout about it on Blackboard. The minimum penalty for plagiarism on an assignment is failure of that assignment. More serious offenses will cause you to fail the course, and could result in your suspension. Rowan University has a licensing agreement with an online service to help prevent student plagiarism. As part of this course I will be using this service at my discretion to determine the originality of your work.

I expect regular attendance, both at class sessions and at our first Friday excursion, and other such events.*  The class needs your contribution, and you need the discussions and experiences that happen when we meet.  You are allowed three absences; after that your participation grade will suffer.  Meanwhile, please make every effort to submit your work on time even if you must be absent.

* Note: I am flexible about scheduled activities outside of normal class time, since you were not aware of them when you signed up for this class and made your schedule for the semester.  But you can't just skip!   If you can't make an outing, let me know, and we'll make other arrangements.  If other problems come up that will affect your attendance, please let me know, and let's see what we can work out.

Online Component:  Both Blackboard and this website are integral to this course. Please use this website as a resource; there's a lot here! All assignments are listed on Blackboard, with due dates. Assigned readings that aren't in one of the texts will be found there as well, and so will some supplementary readings. You may communicate with me by e-mail ( I will communicate with you using your Rowan e-mail account. It is your responsibility to check this regularly, whether or not it is the account you normally use.

Documented disabilities: Your academic success is important to me and to the University. If you have a documented disability that may have an impact upon your work in this class, please contact me. (In fact, please feel free to talk with me about anything that might hamper your success in the course.) Students must provide documentation of their disability to the Academic Success Center in order to receive official University services and accommodations. The Academic Success Center can be reached at 856-256-4234. The Center is located on the 3rd floor of Savitz Hall. The staff is available to answer questions regarding accommodations or assist you in your pursuit of accommodations. They and I look forward to working with you to meet your learning goals.

Stay in touch!  If you can't make class or are having trouble with an assignment, e-mail me, or make an appointment and come see me.

Class starts promptly at 4:45, and ends at 6:00.  Come on time and stay till class is over.

Course Texts:

S.D. Ross, Art and Its Significance (NY: SUNY Press, 1994); an anthology of readings by philosophers and artists.

Honore de Balzac, "The Unknown Masterpiece" and "Gambara", Introduction by Arthur Danto. (NY, 2001, New York Review of Books Classics). We will read the first of these two novellas, "The Unknown Masterpiece", by this great nineteenth century novelist, and the introduction to it by philosopher of art and art critic for The Nation magazine Arthur Danto.

Carl Wilson, Celine Dion "Let's Talk about Love": A Journey to the End of Taste (NY: Continuum, 2007)

Other required and supplementary readings posted on Blackboard.

Reading, Viewing, and Listening Assignments will be made week by week.  Other assignments will be due periodically. They're in this syllabus (twice) and they're posted on Blackboard. You are responsible to know what they are, and to keep up with them, whether or not I announce them in class.  For January 22, familiarize yourself with the course web-page.  Read the introduction to Larry Shiner's The Invention of Art., and do the viewing assignment on African Art listed in the syllabus. Write comments on these readings and exhibitions on the Blackboard Discussion Board (under Course Tools), and come to class prepared to discuss.

Course Outline:  The course will develop along several axes simultaneously.  We will pay attention to several arts, namely painting and sculpture (about four weeks worth); music (also four weeks); and a mixture of theater and dance, photography and film, fiction and poetry, and environmental aesthetics during the remaining weeks of the semester.  We will view, read, or listen to particular works (including student works), and we will discuss issues in philosophical aesthetics raised by the works or the media they represent.  We will also read and discuss essays by several philosophers and critics about the arts.  We will discuss a number of topics in aesthetics, including those raised by the list of topic questions (see menu entry to the left)   We will visit some museums and galleries, and go to some concerts and other arts events.  We will also have some in-class concerts, and some guests.

Course Instructional Staff: You and I!  I mean this seriously.  Many of you are working artists, and you have more expertise in your artistic field than I have.  Some of you are biology or psychology or business majors, and by now you know more about some parts of your chosen field than I know. Sometimes that knowledge will be relevant to our study of the philosophy of art. On the other hand, I have more expertise in philosophy than you do, and after teaching this course for many years I've also picked up a lot of knowledge about the arts. By sharing our knowledge, our experiences, and our questions, we will produce an exciting and worthwhile course.  You are as essential to this result as I am.

My office is on the third floor of Bunce Hall, in the Philosophy and Religion Department's part of the building (Bunce 315).  My office hours are Monday and Wednesday, 1:00 to 2:00 p.m.  I am available at other times also if necessary.  Please come see me! You are welcome to drop by any time; but if you want to be sure we connect, please make an appointment. My e-mail is Feel free to e-mail me with questions or to tell me anything I should know about.

Course Schedule with Assignments, Week by Week

January 17: Introduction brainstorming to complete syllabus, 1st art exercise, first reading exercise (review of short selections distributed in class or found in Ross.) Include excerpts from Ellen Dissanayake "Making Special" and Stephen Davies, "Defining Art", both found on Blackboard, also selections from Dewey (Ross, pp. 204-205, 211) and Tolstoy (Ross, p. 179). All of the quotes are attempts to say what art is. See what you think of them, and what ideas you have about the nature of art. For next time, read the introduction to Larry Shiner's The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (on Blackboard).

January 22: Cave art and cave music, humans as creative, aesthetic beings. (Art as universal language? Play "Music of Strangers" trailer.) How natural is art to human beings, and how much is cultural? Survey of human artistic practices around the world. A look at all the different human activities we might think of as art, and at a variety of "aesthetic qualities". Discuss readings handed out in class on Wednesday from Vasari, Dewey, Danto, Davies, Dissanayake, others.

January 24: What is art now? Reflections on InLiquid tour, on "Fine Art" vs. "Craft" vs. "Graphic Design" vs. "Commercial Art". Discussion of Shiner and the idea of "Fine Art".

January 29: Visit to the dance studio with Professor Leslie Elkins (to be confirmed)

January 31: Discussion of Maxine Sheets Johnstone, "Thinking in Movement".

February 2: First Friday expedition.

February 5: Reflections on First Friday expedition. Then, Re-presenting reality. Paintings: Discuss examples from website. Assign readings for next time: Plato's Republic, pp. 32-38 in Ross; also Plato, Symposium, pp. 59-63 in Ross.

February 7: Readings about representation. Plato's cave, presenting an ideal, presenting the real. Read Vasari quote. Read passage from Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art in class.

February 12: Presenting the human. Images from advertising re: female body image, macho men, promotion of values. Compare Artemischia Gentilleschi's Susannah & the Elders with other male painters' versions. Art and morality, art and censorship, art as expression. Discuss readings from Bloom, Catherine McKinnon, others about freedom. Advertising art as manipulation, the power of the image, Stuart Ewen selection.

February 14: Art & Progress. Futurist Paintings (Delaunays); Picasso & Bonnard (from "Where Do We Go From Here?" page 2; Contemporary painting and the future; Contrast traditional Chinese painting.

February 19: Art and progress: Read short selections from Danto, Gablik, Shiner. Art as cultural construct. Meaning and history.

February 21: Begin music with selections from popular, classical, advertising, religious music, other. Topics to cover: Musical basics (reading from Levitin).

February 26: Music across cultures, western musical history (samples), the modern musical scene. Is music a universal language? check Dammer notes, refer back to Levitin.

February 28: musical meaning: selections from Hanslick, Kivy, Langer and Robinson.

March 5: musical meaning and expression: continued

March 7: Jazz concert

March 19: Performance and improvisation

March 21: Musical taste, with short selection from Wilson

March 26: Commercialism, popular music and the arts. Play examples.

March 28: musical theater: Hamilton and Shakespeare.

April 2: Advertising art, look at several ads and the messages they send. Advertising art as shaper of culture. The art market. Fine art and capitalism

April 4: Comics as art: Maus, Sandman, other examples.

April 9: Poetry day

April 11: How does poetry work?

April 16: Natural aesthetics on campus (a nature/culture walk). Read "How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain", Gretchen Reynolds (mobile.NY July 22, 2015). Look at examples from Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides.

April 18: Literary interpretation: Balzac

April 23: Literary interpretation (cont.): selections from Ross re: this topic.

April 25: Last day of classes. Final project presentations for students choosing to make them.

May ?: (Exam date). There is no exam for this class; however, some students may present to us on that date. Final project is due on this date.

back to top