Art and Philosophy – Nigel Warburton’s 7 Ways of Thinking about Art

Richter PhotoEspanaRESIZED

© Gerhard Richter, courtesy of the artist, and PhotoEspana 2009. From his Overpainted Photographs - family album photos that have been overpainted, which were on show at the Fundacion Telefonica, Barcelona as part of this year's Everyday themed festival. © photo Miranda Gavin, taken at PhotoEspana 2009

‘Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds’ Barnett Newman (quoted on Warburton’s website art and allusion)

If you like your art appreciation served after hours, with a smile, then look no further than the Tate Modern and 7 Ways of Thinking About Art which “explores the philosophical basis of our attempts to understand works of art”. This popular course (deservedly so) is led by philosopher and Open University senior lecturer Nigel Warburton (virtual philosopher) as part of Tate Modern’s (London) Public Programme schedule. What I like about Nigel Warburton’s approach to philosophy, which may be partly due to his role in the OU, is the way he has helped open up the subject making it more accessible through, for example, using clear language. Warburton takes complex ideas, untangles and then contextualises them  – all the while instilling students (even ones new to philosophy) with the confidence to approach work and articulate responses for themselves.

I say this because I started the OU A211 Philosophy and the Human Situation course and also attended one of the 7 Ways of Thinking about Art evening classes when I wrote a post After Hours, for a now-defunct Tate Modern Public Programmes blog. The following excerpt about the class is from February 2008:

“The class is lively and the discussions are stimulating. If I wasn’t writing about the class, I’d be enrolling for it or suggesting that some of my friends enrol. With ages ranging from late 20s to early 60s and a good mix of men and women, with perhaps a slight skew towards women…

“Tonight we take on art appreciation positions which meet each other head on. The Anti-Intentionalist approach championed by art critic Clive Bell in his book Art (1914) – he was married to painter Vanessa Bell, who was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and the sister of writer Virginia Woolf – versus the Intentionalists, for example, Richard Wollheim with a nod to Jerry Fodor’s Virtual Intentionalism. There’s no need to go into detail here as Nigel’s website has links which take you to comprehensive class notes, further explication and feedback. Through careful class management Nigel gets students into anti-intentionalist and intentionalist groups and we take our ideas into the After Impressionism room on Level 5, where we discuss the paintings, including Pierre Bonnard’s, The Bowl of Milk, circa 1919

“Having access to the collection out of hours is fun, as is the complimentary drink which is included in the price of the course and served after class in the Members’ Room on the fifth floor. This is a chance to get to know the students and I find that they represent a broad sweep of people from those who have previously taken courses, such as art history degrees, to people working in the arts and those who want to extend their knowledge.”

The course costs £120 (£90 concessions) and will take place every Monday evening over seven weeks from  19 October – 30 November, (inclusive). All courses are from 18:45 – 20:15. You can book online or call 0207 887 8888.

For a taste of the main topics covered and the approach, take a look at these notes by Warburton from a previous class, Art as Iconic, posted on the art and allusion blog:

“The topic of this session was art as iconic, not in C.S.Peirce’s sense of an iconic sign (in semiotics this is a sign that represents by virtue of resemblance); but rather in the more colloquial sense used by curators, collectors, auction houses etc., meaning, roughly, an outstanding example of an artist’s work or of a phase of an artist’s work.

“An iconic work provides a key that can unlock our understanding of an artist’s style (where style is a series of implied choices the artist has made, including choices about content and materials). To call a work iconic is to make an evaluative judgment about its quality.”


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