Philosophy and Visual Culture

As a philosophy professor, I use images of artworks in my teaching often, by way of rendering philosophical ideas more accessible to my students, and also for the sheer delight of looking at art (some of them have apparently not experienced this!). In doing so I assume that a work of art is a concrete realization of the “spirit of the times” in which it was created. By the “spirit of the times” I mean a set of unconscious or semiconscious values, ideals, or assumptions about the nature of things that are sufficiently basic as to condition and delimit possible forms of expression, verbal or otherwise. These values (etc.) are to be contrasted with deliberately intended content as when, for example, the scenes of triumph on Trajan’s Column propagandize for Trajan’s, and at a deeper level Roman, invincibility. As I hope the following cases show, using works of art to exemplify philosophical ideas can be very useful in a philosophy class, and hopefully (given the nature of this forum) the opposite is also true.

In my Greek Philosophy course, at the beginning of the semester students are encouraged to compare an Egyptian sculpture of a standing male figure to a Greek kouros sculpture. The very obvious borrowing of forms involved in the Greek work makes it clear that Egyptian ideas, in this case ideas about sculptural form, flowed from Egypt to Greece. But of particular relevance to this class, the Egyptian idea of “consubstantialism” was also adopted by the Greeks. This is the idea that all existing things are transformations of a single underlying substance (See Henri Frankfort, Before Philosophy). The idea of consubstantialism is exemplified in engaged Egyptian sculptures, in which a particular form such as a human “grows out of” a background matrix; and Greek philosophy begins with various attempts to identify that mysterious substance that constitutes everything.

Later Greek thought focuses on ideal form. The philosophical poster boy for this view is of course Plato, with his conception of “Forms,” or perfect, immaterial exemplars of things that lend existence (of a sort) and determinacy to things in the imperfect world of space and time. My favorite exemplification of ideal form is the famous bronze Zeus or Poseidon of c. 450 BCE in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Plato himself would not allow that any concrete particular could represent an ideal, but the Greek artists themselves disagreed, convinced as they were that their mathematical ratios, derived from the authority of Pythagoras, allowed them to do precisely that. (In my class on Philosophy of Art, I point out the roughly one-century time lapse between the discovery of ideal form in art and its expression in philosophy. I have never studied this phenomenon systematically, but I imagine the art-first, philosophy-later sequence is common.)

In my Asian philosophy class the most important Hindu concept is probably that of Brahman, the unitary consciousness whose sportive activity results in the apparent plurality of reality. This consubstantialist idea is wonderfully exemplified in the Hindu temple, wherein a teeming phantasmagoria of images on the outside gives way to extreme simplicity, e.g., a single lingam, on the inside. Again, the Buddhist idea of anicca, or impermanence, is illustrated by the astonishing Tibetan sand mandalas, which are created in an improbably short time, allowed to exist briefly, then destroyed. And humans’ proper place in nature is shown at least as effectively in Taoist landscapes, wherein persons are a minute part of the whole, as in the verses of the Daodejing.

Examples can be multiplied. Neoplatonism reinterprets Platonism so as to view sensory particulars as conduits to transcendent realities, a view that seems to influence artists such as Barnett Newman quite as much as it does the creators of Byzantine icons. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the intrinsic worth of all persons (albeit often enough from a safe distance) seems to be prefigured in, for example, Velazquez’s sympathetic renditions of dwarves, mulattoes and commoners, and finds full expression in Millet’s peasants. And in the Philosophy of Art class, a review of contemporary art movements in connection with Nietzsche’s claim that a culture is characterized by “unity of style” yields interesting fodder for discussion.

In short, the history of art provides endless examples of works that prefigure or mirror philosophical concepts. I believe that showing students such examples aids their learning them, by displaying a given idea in a modality other than language. Perhaps the history of philosophy can provide a similarly reinforcing service for the history of art.

2 responses to “Philosophy and Visual Culture”

  1. Kathleen Wentrack says:

    Thank you Joel, this was very intriguing for me. I sometimes refer to what I know about philosophy when teaching survey and modern art but feel I need more information. Any chance you could recommend a philosophy survey book that could be useful to art historians?

    Thank you!

  2. Joel Wilcox says:

    Hi Kathy, for many years I have used a book called _Does the Center Hold_ (D. Palmer) in my intro classes. I think it is a good, readable survey of philosophy. The 5th ed. (superseded by the 6th, but fine for your purposes) is very inexpensive. Bertrand Russell’s one-volume _History of Philosophy_ is also good, but drier than the Palmer. And just looking around on Amazon I found _A Little History of Philosophy_ by Nigel Warburton, which seems very promising (I have not seen that book, but like the author). I also have a survey of phil. through Descartes that I wrote for freshmen and sophomores; I could send you a PDF, at least of certain chapters (I don’t know how many pages the scanner can handle), in case you wanted specific information on something (e.g. Neoplatonism). Best, Joel

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