In this recent Aeon piece, Costica Bradatan dips into the ongoing debate about the extent to which art can actually do philosophy. He argues that, regardless of their adherence or lack thereof to any technical definitions of philosophy, films 'can have on us the same effect that the great, perennial works of philosophy do: shake and awaken us, breathe new life into our minds, open us up to new ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us.'

The orthodox rebuttal, of course, is that unlike philosophy, art does not deal in arguments. Indeed, as many artists will explicitly assert, not only does art not make arguments, but when it tries to make arguments, more often than not, it ends up being bad art. The more didactic it is, the weaker it is artistically. 

But I wonder if there might be ways in which art, in accordance with its own principles, might in fact make something like arguments - about human nature, love, passion, morality, the roles and limitations of knowledge, and so on. A friend of mine from Gonzaga, David Calhoun, has been working on an approach that he calls 'weighted hermeneutic'. Even if art doesn't make straightforward, according to Hoyle 'arguments', nonetheless artists put their thumb on the scale, he says. 

If we think about why it is that overly didactic art tends to be bad art, it's not necessarily because it tries to make a point. Rather, it's typically because in its effort to make clear its point, it ends up effacing the human elements of the story into one-dimensional caricatures, thereby making the artistic equivalent of what in philosophy is referred to as 'bad arguments'. Take, for instance, religious entertainment, such as the film God's Not Dead. This film is not bad because of its religious themes. It's bad because of the cartoonish ways that it presents the contrast between the atheist philosophy professor, along with all his mindless, liberally indoctrinated sheep, and the one, 'heroic' Christian student who's willing to stand up against the unbelieving 'world'. It plays into and reinforces an ultra-conservative narrative about the nature of college education, and in particular the teaching of philosophy, such that nothing about the story feels real. But such schlock is not even in the same ballpark as works like Chaim Potok's The Chosen, Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm, or Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, not to mention Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. What makes such works compelling is that they present nuanced, very human, very believable pictures of particular worldviews, situations, crises, and so on, and then play out in artistic fashion the implications of those personas. In this sense, they make something like arguments. But no one would question their status as art. It seems like one could say the same thing about Coetzee's The Lives of Animals, Orwell's Animal Farm, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Rashomon, and about thousands and thousands of other works of art. 

I tend to agree with Bradatan. 


07/20/2017 6:45am

I'm really sure that art can philosophize. Art can be expressed in various forms. It can also be interpreted by different people, in many ways. We cannot assume that an art piece can only be understood in one definition. This is the reason why art is complicated and not an easy subject to tackle.


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