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Issues in Contemporary Aesthetics (PH346-15)

Imagine you are in a gallery with a friend. You come across a circle of stones on the floor. You think it means quite different things, and perhaps even get into a row about it. Is one of you is right and one of you wrong? Are there right or wrong interpretations when it comes to art, and if so are they the ones that correspond most closely to what the artist intended or the ones that make the work most interesting? Or is it all merely “subjective”?

Now imagine that on your way home you witness some altercation between motorists. This kind of thing happens everyday in your city and you pass on, thinking little more about it. In the next morning’s newspaper you learn that a Venice Biennale winning artist, famous for staging scenes of urban confrontation to provoke reactions has been at work in your town, but it doesn’t state where. Did you unwittingly witness some avant-garde performance art, and if so how would you know? If you couldn’t distinguish it from everyday life, just what is that makes one angry confrontation art and another, seemingly just like it, art? One obvious response is to look at context: is one in a museum or theatre space and the other not? But that is no help here.

Perhaps on reflection you are angry: people should not be toyed with in this way. What if you had intervened and inadvertently got hurt? You think this is a moral failing. But on doing further research learn that the artist is delighted by this kind of response and thinks it makes the work better. Can moral failings, if that is what they are, ever enhance artistic value? What if a work has obscene, pornographic, misogynistic or inflammatory racist content? Are ethical failings always also aesthetic failings?

This module considers these and other questions that naturally arise when we reflect on our experience of the visual arts, particularly the challenges of 20th Century “avant-garde” art.

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Module Director

Dr Diarmuid Costello

Timing and CATS

This module runs in the Autumn Term and is worth 15 CATS.