dr. Rob van Gerwen
Consilium Philosophicum

Philosophy of Art

Royal Academy of Art, The Hague

Royal Academy of Art
Prinsessegracht 4
2514 AN The Hague
15-19 October 2018


In this seminar we discuss core philosophical issues to do with contemporary art.

...In this seminar we develop a coherent vision on art...

About Rob van Gerwen

Dr. Rob van Gerwen is senior lecturer and researcher at the department of Philosophy (faculty of Humanities) of University Utrecht. He also taught at the Royal Academy of Art and the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and the School of Arts (HKU) in Utrecht, at Higher Education for Older People (HOVO) in Nijmegen, Utrecht and Tilburg, as well as at art institutions in Den Bosch, Breda and Eindhoven. He is director/owner of Consilium Philosophicum.

He published many articles and seven books, on subjects from the philosophy of art, among which a dissertation on Art and Experience (1996, cum laude); a book on Richard Wollheim's approach of painting, with Cambridge University Press (2001), and, with the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, Kleine overpeinzingen. Over kunst kijken in het museum (Tiny Thoughts on Watching Art in Museums, 2003). In 2016 his Moderne filosofen over kunst (Modern Philosophers on Art) appeared with Dutch publishing house Klement (2nd ed. 2017), followed in October 2018 by Shall we Stay in Touch (Zullen we contact houden, in Dutch), also with Klement. Currently he is working on a book on art and evil, and is researching the aesthetics of human beauty, facial expression and cosmetic surgery.
Check his websites to find elaborate descriptions of his teachings, articles, presentations, tweets and a weblog. More (in Dutch)...

About the course

Meetings from 10.00-16.00. For dates and subjects, see below.

Handouts will be available after class. Ask for login data.

At the first meeting, students receive one short writing assignment (with deadline Tuesday midnight), and one big overall assignment, to be finished by Friday.


1. Write a short essay of about 600 words (+/- 10%!) about the issue below. It will be graded and counts for 30% of your final grade for these classes. The deadline is coming Tuesday midnight, a Word-doc attached to an e-mail to rob.vangerwen@uu.nl.
2. 50% of your grade is made up of the grade for your final project: a work of art processing the arguments discussed in this class, or a detailed plan for such a work, to be presented Friday afternoon.
3. 20% will be based on your activities during class attendance.

Essay assignment

  • Do you think morality should be allowed to censor art? Do you think art has a moral task? How do you see the combination of these two answers?


15 oktober 2018. What is philosophy? What is art?

Introduction to the seminar.
We watch Ben Lewis' Art Safari, on Relational art, and discuss the definition of art.

16 oktober 2018. Moral aspects of art.

Assuming that art is to be defined historically (Levinson) and that autonomous art is a moral practice, the current rise of seemingly immoral works of art where fish or people are maltreated for the mere sake of aesthetic appreciation confronts us with a dilemma. Either these "works" or events cannot be art on account of their immorality, or they are art and their immorality has a different status. In the latter case they seem something radically new, a new art form. I discuss this issue, address examples of such "immoral" art, and argue that indeed they are best understood as a new art form: implication art.

Levinson's historical definition looks to the past to assess the artisticity of present art, but how should one deal with the radically new? To argue for the conclusion that implication art is new art, Levinson's historical definition is to be supplemented with a means to recognise art which apparently cannot be understood in light of preceding works. I approach the current cases of implication art as samples of a procedure of which I establish the artistic fruition by identifying artistically meritorious works complying with it. The procedure involves the introduction of material into art that has previously been viewed as unavailable for art for moral reasons. The inclusion comes with high psychological demands on the audience.

17 oktober 2018. No session.

18 oktober 2018. Public Art.

When in 1989 the people voted that Richard Serra's Tilted Arc be removed from Federal Plaza in New York City, the artist argued that his work would be destroyed by its displacement. The meaning of the work depends on its location: the work's meaning is site-specific. Empirically, or legally, the issue is solved—the work was removed—but philosophically whether art fits in public space is still an open question. The knife of site-specificity appears to cut both ways. Displacing Tilted Arc did indeed destroy its intended meaning, but installing it on the Plaza likewise destroyed the site-specific meaning of the square itself which it has built over the years and shared with its occupants. Which of these sets of meanings should prevail, and on which grounds?

Which conceptual framework will help us map the issue? 1. Which types of objects are at stake with Public Art? 2. Which types of location are at stake in Public Art? 3. How does a work of Public Art generate its meaning? 4. How must the ontology of Public Art be conceived if its nature depends on reciprocated site-specificity? Working from examples, I sort out these philosophical issues. Among others, we shall look at statues, Serra's Tilted Arc, Banksy's street art, and a sculpture Anno Dijkstra made after an iconic photograph. I use these examples to tease out the issue at hand. I note a paradox: art is a practice aiming to secure the vulnerable aspects of human life, yet in some Public Art, such as Tilted Arc, art itself seems to tamper with this vulnerability. Perhaps public art is an art form, not just an assembly of works of art in public spaces. Alternatively, it merely consists of samples of established art forms, the nature of which is no different than what we are already used of—only the space they are exhibited in is.

19 oktober 2018. Pornography as Art.

In contradistinction with standard analytical essentialist approaches, the only decisive way to answer the question whether pornography can be art, is by treating both, art and pornography, holistically, as practices. The concepts of art and pornography rely on the use and performative of the relevant pictures, i.e. on how pornography and art can suitably be held to affect their audiences, and how their audiences suitably use the respective pictures. The makers of the pictures aim at particular experiences in the spectator; the pictures reflect these intentions, and spectators aim to respond to them in suitable manner. Only then do works of art or pornographic pictures work best as art, or, respectively, pornography. Of course, this is an ideal description of these practices. One may understand these interrelations as meaningful wholes of feed-back mechanisms, and the wholes as practices.


Philosophy of the Arts, a blog by Rob van Gerwen