FACS 1900 C
Arts and Ideas
Instructor: Robert Gill
Room: ACW 206 for lecture, ACE 006 for tutorial
Time: Friday 11:30 to 1:30 PM for lecture, 2:30 to 3:30 for tutorial
October 24, 2008
Please approach me with any concerns you have rather than waiting until course
evaluation time. Today we have our town hall meeting about how things are going. We
will take in straggling papers, resubmitted papers. I will be happy to talk to any of you
one on one.
The final concept of this course, I could have started with it. Defining the aesthetic. This
final concept for this term is the most important one for us to understand. You come into
arts school for it, the most heavily reinforced box that you have when you come to art
We tend to have very strong ideas about what is aesthetically pleasing, we get them from
the culture, from the social environments that we come from. In this course I’m
challenging you to rethink what you already know about all kinds of things. Your idea
about what aesthetics are, how aesthetics relate to what you are doing as a creative
Design students are notorious for coming to art school thinking they have a great
portfolio, great drawing skills and they will keep doing the same thing. That is not the
most significant thing to get out of university, you could stay at home and do it on your
own. What is most significant for artists and creative people today is not some 19 th
century idea about beauty. This is the 21 century.
You live in a network society, not based on producing objects in a factory but based on
the production of information and knowledge. You have to understand how that works.
Aesthetics is challenging to study, we do have a lot of preconceived ideas already there in
our heads about what it is. Today I will challenge that a bit and see how far we can get.
Aesthetics is a powerful set of ideas and we need some critical tools to tstnk about where
these ideas come from. As someone teaching arts and ideas in the 21 century, the first
thing I have to confront is the 19 century and its established ideas about beauty and what
Here is a pastel drawing of a nude by Degas, he did tons of it. It’s beautifully executed.
The draftsmanship is extraordinary, his mastery over the media is incredible. Anybody
would want to have the skill to be able to do this. One art historian has called these
images a keyhole view of the subject of the image. Almost like he was looking through a
1 keyhole in a door. The woman doesn’t know she is being watched. An element of
voyeurism. It’s a form of soft pornography.
You go to a museum and see hundreds of images like these, it must be great, it must be
art. There is a lot more about art than paintings like this. The social context of how such
things are produced. Degas’s position of power to observe these women in daily lives and
to record them for our consumption.
Late 1980s, this is a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. The subject matter is strangely
similar. Photographer living in NY in the heyday of gay liberation. The image of a black
man turned into an object for aesthetic pleasure. Not far removed from Degas. It
generated controversy. It still relies on a set of conventions about what is beautiful, what
is art. A black and white photography, the printing technology is very important. The way
silver sits on paper and creates this image.
Another art historical reference point is classical sculpture. This image from Praxiteles,
an ancient Greek sculptor. In a lot of ways in western societies this conception of beauty
and aesthetics is one that we are still confronted with. There is a sculptural quality to this
image referencing that.
The general point I’m making is that aesthetics are established ways of seeing, a kind of
system of boxes that we created or inherited largely in institutional settings like
universities and museums. Largely well educated white middle class men who created
these ideas of aesthetics, they are not neutral concepts. White guys that codified a system
of aesthetics. It’s important to know how historically these ideas have come about.
It’s a bit boring to study white guys and their cultural supremacy but the importance of
studying them is that their ideas have been very powerful and they continue to be
powerful today. Go to AGO in November and ask yourself how much you’re seeing is
about dead white men. The majority of the material presented. We need to understand
something about the history of these objects and the politics of how these objects are
understood. Fairly archaic institutions called the museum and the university. How do
museums create notions of aesthetics, how does art history create notions of aesthetic,
how do universities perpetuate these ideas or challenge them? How do institutions create
way of seeing.
Culture is about ways of seeing, thinking, understanding, representing the world. What
aesthetics are is a set of ideas about how we see and understand the world and how we
see and understand creativity and art making. What is good and what is not good. What is
beautiful and what is not beautiful. Your painting instructions are relying on a set of
aesthetic ideas to make judgments about your work. What is a good painting and what is
not a good painting. Evaluating how things hold together. In the case of studio courses, a
lot of it is premised on notions of aesthetics.
2 These ideas are not universal. They have not been here since the beginning of time and
we don’t all subscribe to the same ideas. We don’t all see the world through the same
view. Now we go back into it and start fleshing it out with more detail and examples.
If this was a paper, an essay, I would have just recited the introduction to the paper and
for the next three papers I would outline an argument about aesthetics giving you
examples, references to authors, illustrations to the ideas. In your paper and on the test we
want to see something similar. An introduction, a definition of the concepts, a definition
of the concept of culture for example. Reference to that definition, connections made to
illustrations, examples used in the class.
Aesthetics, because it is a very complex world we live in, understanding it becomes a
very politically charged thing to do. The wealthy bourgeois art collector in the 19 th
century buying Degas’s images of naked women saw them quite differently than the
working class women posing for those drawings, feeling leered at. The wives of the
buyers were probably feeling a bit the same.
At that time Degas’ work was challenging people’s ideas about beauty and about gender.
Aesthetics are not universal, we have to understand them in their historical context. In
relationship to the societies and historical times that created them. In the context of the
way we are in the world, in a world constantly produced by people. How we produce the
world around us. There is something political about what gets decided as beautiful and
The AGO was largely the brainchild of very wealthy people who decided to build a
museum in a certain way, to make certain decisions about what is valuable and not
valuable artistically and then spend 300 million dollars building a structure to put all that
stuff in. You are going to see that certain stories are being told and certain stories are not
being told. This is about power. Culture and power being always related, we’re back on
that page again.
Aesthetics and the capacity to be able to define what is beautiful or not is about power.
It’s not just about paintings, it’s about people as well. We make these judgments about
human beings. The image of the beautiful young Greek god sculpted in white marble is a
statement about beauty and about human bodies. An image about race ultimately. In the
19 century art historians looked back and said these are the most beautiful examples of
art work that Europe has ever produced. At the same time that European societies were
setting up colonization throughout the world. There is a connection between how beauty
is understood and how we perceive human beings. These are not disconnected.
Aesthetics is something very powerful that we use to talk about art work and about
human bodies and the differences between them. Historically whiteness has been
understood to be beautiful and blackness to be ugly. Whiteness associated with purity and
beauty, blackness with evil and corruption. The foundation of how we think about beauty.
A profound connection race-aesthetics in European societies.
3 Aesthetics is a discourse. It’s a kind of conversation about beauty, it’s a social
conversation about beauty. Not only between people but also a conversation created by
institutions. A setting for a certain conversation about beauty. These notions about beauty
are very difficult to challenge. You may see a website interface as beautiful, the design of
a website as being about how you understand aesthetics. Try going to AGOs website,
they’re not even on the page!
The AGO houses defunct ideas about beauty in some ways. Aesthetics as judgment. We
believe Degas’ drawing to be beautiful not just because he was a master technician. We
recognize his skill in his work. We also believe his work to be important and significant
because those images have been deemed to be significant. When you pick up an art
history book, they make statements about what is beautiful. It’s in those books that
judgments and statements are made. It's not free floating, it’s not something that we can’t
understand very specifically.
This system of judgments and statements is important to understand, when we’re saying
something is beautiful we’re implying something else is not beautiful. Seeing non white
bodies as not beautiful. Making choices about what is considered to be beautiful and not
has very powerful implications.
What a gleaming white marble sculpture means to us today in a museum is not the same
as a hundred years ago or two thousand years ago. I’m not sayinthit’s racist. But in the
context of the development of thropean aesthetics in the 19 century, a time of incredible
racism culminating in the 20 century with the Holocaust, the meaning of that sculpture
was racist. It has changed over time.
If a white supremacist wants to put a Greek sculpture on their leaflets, his statement about
the sculpture is racist. The meaning of something is subject to a set of conditions. An
image or a sign does not mean the same thing in all circumstances. Aesthetics have to be
understood in a context. Notions about beauty are not neutral. All notions about beauty
are political, are about power. If you say that beauty means a certain kind of painting, of
sculpture, you are automatically excluding something else. How contemporary artists
think about creativity and about aesthetics. Kara Walker as an artist has some interesting
things to say about aesthetics.
Kara Walker video presentation
• Slavery! Slavery! The influence of Gone With the Wind.
• Freedom: A Fable Back
• A lit rotunda with silhouette characters all around, creating the illusion of depth
and space, luring the viewer into the feeling of being a part of a scene. Biennale in
Sao Paolo in Brazil. Picture of the old South that is a stereotype. Most of my work
gives the illusion of being about the past. How engrossing and grotesque that
story was at the same time. The distressing part was being caught up in the voice
of the heroine, Scarlet O’Hara.
4 • A lot of my work has been about the unexpected. Wanting to be the heroine and
to kill the heroine at the same time. That dilemma is the underlying turbulence
that I bring to each of the pieces that I make. The silhouette lends itself to
avoidance of the subject, you are not asked to look at it directly.
• The South as a place loaded with mythology but also a reality of viciousness. As a
young girls I had nightmares at the idea of moving from California to Georgia. I
grew up mostly in Georgia. Still Mountain was a haven for the KKK. In your
face, no hiding the fact what black stands for in white America. Loaded with deep
psychological perversions and feelings and loathing. Attempts to steal power
away from others. Physiognomy and racist statements, shadows. Making a cut in
the surface of black paper, creating a hole and the whole world was in there for
me. I was interested in the melodramatic, outrageous gestures.
• Making a painting staged, thinking of your portraits as characters on that stage.
To freeze a moment that is full of pain and guts and glory. Insurrection is an
image of slave revolt. The house slaves got after their master with the utensils of
everyday life. Borrowing from the surgical theater paintings tradition. Over head
projectors so that the viewer’s shadow is also projected onto the scene. Projecting
fictions onto those facts.
• Silhouette artists as questioning the idea of accurate likeness. My work takes a
narrative structure, I just need the viewer like an author needs a reader to fill in
the rest of the tension of the story.
• 1997, Freedom a Fable, a book I made. The Negro as a term, trying to skirt the
line between fiction and reality. How do you make representations of your world
given what you’ve been given.
What do you think her motivation