What makes an artwork beautiful? Why does Duchamp’s Fountain, essentially a urinal, count as a piece of art whereas urinals in a public washroom are not? These are some questions that lie in the domain of aesthetics. Dr. Belinda Piercy, who teaches philosophy of art courses at UTM, gives a broad overview of her research and aesthetics’ typical questions.

The Medium: I heard you study Kantian aesthetics. How did you get interested in this?

Belinda Piercy: “I took a Kant course in my last semester of undergrad, and we read his three big critiques that Kant wrote. The first part of it is about beauty and judgments of beauty. I remember putting up my hand and asking why we we’re reading this. Isn’t beauty a fluff topic? We read Kant about the nature of the world, morality, and now beauty seemed like a strange thing to end on. But, I actually found that Kant’s views on beauty take up questions that he started in his earlier critiques, and it’s fascinating that he thought he could answer some of these questions by talking about beauty. I wound up studying Kant’s aesthetics for the next ten years.”

TM: You mentioned in a class that you volunteered at the Museum of Inuit Art. What was that experience like?

BP: “There’s actually a complicated history between the Canadian government and the Inuit. I appreciated the opportunity to understand the complexities of [Canadian identity] more. I was never a huge fan of minimalist art, but my favorite artist at the museum was Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok. I bought myself [one of her stone] pieces. The stone from that part of the arctic is very hard, and the style is minimalistic.”

TM: What are you currently working on in terms of research?  

BP: “Most recently, I’m working on aesthetic attention. There’s a contemporary philosopher, Bence Nanay, who works on attention and gives a philosophical account of kinds of attention. In philosophy of art, there has been this idea that we pay attention to artworks in a particular way, and that paying attention to them in that way is part of what it’s like to have an aesthetic experience. Ordinarily, [when we] go around the world, we have a practical orientation when we pay attention to things. We pay attention to them enough to carry out the thing we need to do.  You pick up the book just to read it. But when we come to aesthetic experiences, they can capture us. We look and we look and there seems to be something there that absorbs our attention.”

TM: What are some common definitions of what makes art? Is readymade art, like Duchamp’s Fountain, considered art?

BP: “There’s a very old idea that artworks imitate real things. This is a very old idea that goes back to ancient Greek philosophy that artworks are copies of real things in the world. But there are a lot of problems with that view. For example, mirrors reflect things but aren’t artworks. Also, as the history of art progressed, artists no longer tried to imitate real things, particularly once the camera was developed. Then you get abstract works—sometimes they can be a bit ugly, so the idea that artworks had to be beautiful changed.

“So, when is Duchamp’s urinal a work of art? We still have this strong idea that art is a craft that involves a skill. So when Duchamp snuck in this urinal into an exhibit, he was pushing the boundaries—can art be something you didn’t make yourself, but something you chose? There are still philosophers who disagree with this. Some still hold that art involves making. But what is ‘making’?”

TM: Is there a purpose to art? Is there a political or moral purpose to art?

BP: “A part of [Kant’s] view is that judgments of beauty are not governed by a practical purpose. Kant’s example is to look at a beautiful palace. There’s a lot of [practical] questions you can ask about. Is this really a nice place to live in? How much did it cost to make it? Who made it? But these questions seem to be separate from whether or not it’s beautiful. That seems to be something you can assess independent of its practical, political context. This idea was really shaken up in the twentieth century with political motivated artworks. Is it really art if we make it for a political purpose? There’s a comment that if [something] has a political agenda, it can’t be art.”

TM: Is there any value to seeing art at an exhibit, or is seeing a reproduction (e.g., a photograph of a painting online) the same?

BP: “You can just google a Van Gogh, and you’ll see different color qualities of the same painting. We live in a world with unprecedented access to these things online. If it’s a good quality reproduction, then you are seeing what is there online; there’s a question of what is added by going to see [the artwork] in person. I think it does make a difference, obviously in the case of sculptures, in terms of interacting [with the artwork]. But this [interaction] is true even with paintings—walking close to it, looking at it from different sides; even though you don’t touch them, there is an exploration that you can do in a gallery that you can’t do when looking at an image online.”

TM: Can evaluations of art ever be wholly objective? Can we ever make a rubric or criteria to determine good art?

BP: “Going back to Kant, if judgements about beauty are based upon feeling, then they aren’t based upon applying rules or criteria. This was a big idea of Kant that beauty has to surprise us. We can’t have a recipe for beauty. […] To some extent, you can be evaluated in terms of execution of task. In the case of art students, the evaluation could be how your skills are developing versus the success of this thing as an artwork.