What Are the Main Branches of Philosophy for this Class?

Illustration of Blind Men and Elephant
Indian skepticism towards dogmatic statements is illustrated by the famous tale of the Blind men and an elephant, common in Buddhism and Jainism. By romana klee (2012)

Week 3, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify and explain the goals of the various branches of philosophy
  2. Explain philosophy’s main method

What are the main branches of philosophical thought for this class?

Metaphysics: “‘[T]he queen of the sciences,’ as Immanuel Kant called it – should take pride of place. Philosophy, as they see it, is primarily the attempt to uncover the fundamental structure of reality, to discover – at the most general level possible – that there is.” (Cooper & Fosl, Philosophy: The Classic Readings, xxvii)

Some metaphysical questions include:

  • Does God exist?
  • Are minds or souls made from the same physical stuff brains, baseballs, and dinosaurs are?
  • Is there some kind of purpose that underwrites the way the cosmos is unfolding or is it all pointless and without reason?
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • What is the nature of the self?
  • Do we have free will?

Epistemology: This is the theory of knowledge. Epistemology, “seeks to establish a framework that we can use to arrive at genuine and accurate understanding. This involves identifying and developing criteria and methodologies for determining what we know and why we know it. Metaphysics and epistemology are interdependent, and answering the questions in the one area frequently involves answering the questions in the other area.” (Chaffee, The Philosopher’s Way, 30)

Typical epistemological questions would include:

  • Can we ever really know anything at all?
  • How do we know when we don’t know something?
  • What are the differences between believing and knowing?
  • What is truth?

Ethics: “[P]hilosophy was in its earliest days and throughout much of its history inspired by an essentially practical ambition – to determine how human beings ought to act, treat each other, feel and live.” (Cooper & Fosl, xxvii, emphasis original)

The term, ethics comes to us from the Greek ethos (ἦθος) which points to one’s characteristic ways of being in the world. The word ethos is cognate with another important term, ethea (ἤθεα), which refers to the habitual places of things in the world. If ethos refers to habit then we understand that ethea refers to habitat; the orientation here is that one’s habitat is where one’s habit’s at.

Typical ethical questions:

  • Ask how we ought to behave or what we should do.
  • How do we decide on the appropriate way to act in a situation?
  • Is there a good life to which we all ought to strive?

Aesthetics: This is the study of making sense, a phrase that has to do with meaning and the value we assign to our meanings. The Greek term from which we derive aesthetics is aisthesis (αἴσθησις), which connotes sense and our capacity to perceive.

Most frequently aesthetics entails discussions of beauty and art but for me it is through Aesthetics that socio-political philosophy gains its teeth. To ask a question like, “What is justice?” is to seek a value judgement, to ask what is the best form of government is to ask for an assessment of the value of the distribution of material resources across a people.

Logic: This is the use and study of valid reasoning. With logic we are seeking the rules that would establish how reasoning can happen correctly.

Logic is concerned with reasoning and how reasoning gone bad leads to promoting false conclusions. Through the systematization of this body of knowledge there has developed a robust toolkit for analytic thinking and thought engineering.

Click here for the next section of this lecture: What Is Philosophy’s Main Method?

How Is Philosophy Different from Religion?

American Legion Postcard
American Legion postcard (circa 1930–1945), “Teach children religion for a better community — religion means reverence – obedience – order, irreligion means chaos – crime – social collapse, parents, wake up!” The Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, Print Department

Week 2, lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how religion differs from philosophy and
  2. Discuss the methodological differences between these two disciplines.

In our previous lecture we discussed how Philosophy differs from Science. Now let’s discuss how Philosophy differs from Religion.

How does philosophy differ from religion?

The religious and philosophical perspectives were often one and the same in the period before the Middle Ages. From the time of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) forward, however, there is a gradual distancing of the two bodies of thought. Aquinas proposed that religion is best understood as a top-down field in which God reveals himself through his sacred texts and religion is the study of these moments of “self-revelation.” Philosophy, for Aquinas, was a bottom-up activity in which humans observe natural phenomena and proceeds to generate knowledge of the world until it can extrapolate laws upward to a knowledge of God.

A core question for Aquinas was whether or not the truths of faith (another way of describing revelation) are demonstrable. Can revelation be demonstrated in the same way that natural phenomena can? If not, then reasoning can take us only so far in our search for personal salvation.

“Religion demands acceptance and belief, and philosophy demands explanation. Philosophy demands that God be intelligible, that He and His actions should make sense to us.” (Pessin & Engel, 7) Of course, if God exists, then it’s easy to imagine a response along the lines of, “who are you to demand things of me, your maker?” Would God’s perspective even make sense to humans? Faith requires a leap away from reasonable.

“[P]hilosophy differs from religion in that it bases its conclusions primarily on reasoning and evidence and not, like religion, on appeal to revelation and sacred authority. Philosophy, unlike religion, wants to find out ‘what it’s all about,’ using reason as its primary tool.” (Pessin & Engel, The Study of Philosophy, 8) It’s important that we recognize that religion and philosophy can often arrive at similar conclusions about things; however, religion and philosophy arrive at these common conclusions through different methods.

In a previous class I told you a story about Pythagoras and the origin of the term “philosophy,” and I mentioned the Olympic games where he coined the term. It’s important for us to recognize that these games were religious ceremonies in some ways. Prior to philosophy, religion provided the conceptual scaffolding that the Ancient Greeks used to explain the phenomena they observed. Initially the superstitious beliefs that underwrote the religious explanations of these phenomena inhibited the growth of philosophy and science. But today there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason why philosophy, science, and religion cannot mutually inform one another.

As Chaffee (The Philosopher’s Way338) points out, their mutual beneficence is only undermined when any of the three disciplines intentionally encroaches on the territory of the other.

For example:

  • If philosophy decrees, as the logical positivists did, that religious statements have no ‘truth value’ because they cannot be verified empirically.
  • If science proclaims, as scientific materialists have, that only physical matter exists in the universe: Entities such as souls, spirits, or gods are simply concocted fantasies.
  • If religion announces, as many religions do, that the conclusions of philosophy and science should be automatically dismissed if they appear to conflict with religious truths.

Let’s review:

Philosophy differs from science by asking more general questions than can be tolerated by the scientific method.

Philosophy differs from religion in its method, which requires reason and evidence that can be communicated and replicated.

How Is Philosophy Different from Science?

Science illustration
Illustration from The Science Record (1874) showing a direct reduction furnace invented by Carl Wilhelm Siemens, based on the revolving drum principle.

Week 2, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define scientia.
  2. Explain how the scientific method differs from Philosophy

The word “science” comes to the English language from the Latin term scientia, meaning “knowledge through skillful means.”

It is important to recognize that science, in this class, is not a belief system but rather a systematic organization of knowledge that has been gathered and tested through the scientific method. The scientific method comprises a body of techniques for inquiring about observable phenomena, generating new knowledge about phenomena, and for correcting and integrating previous knowledge.

The scientific method is an ongoing process that begins with

  1. observations that lead to,
  2. generating questions about the observed phenomena and these are refined into,
  3. hypotheses that predict future phenomena. These hypothetical future phenomena are then
  4. tested in experiments that seek to demonstrate the reliability of the hypotheses to generate the predicted phenomena.
  5. Typically the hypotheses will be refined and altered in light of what happens in the experiments.
  6. Usually the positive results of experiments are published for the purpose of seeking confirmation from other scientists in the field. If the published results are confirmed widely enough and gel with the findings of other scientists conducting similar experiments, then
  7. the hypotheses will be put forward by the community into new generalizable theories about the nature of the world.

What I hope you note about the scientific method is that it is an enterprise whose core operation is creating conditions for consensus about how the world appears to be.

Also notice that the scientific method is future-oriented: the experiments seek the causes of predicted future phenomena. This is not the same thing as pursuing The Truth, which is noumenal, meaning it is unchanging and not directly experienced by our senses. The sciences are pursuing reliably demonstrable matters of fact. Through the scientific enterprise there is an accretion of these reliably demonstrable facts that leads the scientific community to a consensus about what The Truth might include (in the forms of theories and laws), but it’s important to recognize that these are, ultimately, models of the universe subject to revision and not the universe in-itself.

Philosophy and science complement one another.

Fun fact: During the nineteenth century “science” was slang, among some on the Oxford University campus, referring to the section of the Literae Humaniores honors program that dealt with ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

“Philosophy is not first and foremost the delineation of reality, or an enquiry into the nature of knowledge, or a pursuit of the good life – as if these were separate, discrete activities. Instead, it is that endeavor of the human spirit whereby men and women strive to lead the sorts of lives and to become the sorts of beings that are informed and guided by disciplined thinking about the ways of things.” (Cooper and Fosl, Philosophy: The Classical Readings, xxvii)

Philosophy takes a holistic approach to the study of things. Scientific endeavors are typically marked by exploring two questions:

  1. what is this thing? and then,
  2. how does this thing work? Philosophy also asks these questions but also asks a third question:
  3. what does it mean that this thing is here?

“It is in this respect that philosophy differs significantly from science. Philosophy tries to see things whole by asking questions that are more general than those of science, in the sense that their answers have far-reaching consequences for our understanding of ourselves and our world.
Philosophy also tries to see things whole by asking questions that are concerned with how different sets of facts are related. Not only does the nature of the pieces of the puzzle pose a problem, but how they fit together does as well.” (Pessin and Engel, The Study of Philosophy: A Text with Readings, 5)

Science is an activity of finding and communicating causes and effects. Through the scientific enterprise we gain a better understanding of natural phenomena and from these observations we can draw together some principles and theories and so on. It may seem silly, then, for me to question something as seemingly fundamental as whether or not all things have a cause. If everything has a cause, including human nature, then can we be justified in holding people legally and morally responsible for what they do?

An example (from neuroethics) may help illustrate my point. There was a case in which a father began sexually molesting his daughter. This went unnoticed by other members of the household for a number of years in part because, around the time of this series of violations the man was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had it removed. After the successful treatment, the father no longer molested his daughter. A few years later the father began to violate his daughter again and he was again diagnosed with a brain tumor in the same region as before. From this terrible situation neuroscience has learned a great deal about certain regions of the brain are responsible for the actions of people.

Am I justified in holding this father responsible for his actions if I know that his actions were caused by a brain tumor? This is the kind of question that an oncologist or a neuroscientist is not trained for and that a philosopher is.

Philosophers are not only concerned with the facts of how the brain operates but also how the facts we already have impact other beliefs we have, such as human freedom and moral responsibility. As Pessin and Engel state, “Philosophy’s questions are nonfactual.” (5)

How To Do Philosophy

Punch magazine "Wise Warning"
Caricature from the London satire magazine Punch (1890) on the relationship between Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II

Week 1, Lecture 1

Previously we discussed how to define the term “philosophy” and there we were introduced to Pythagoras, who coined the term.

We also discussed why one ought to study Philosophy, here.

But what does it mean to do the work of Philosophy? What is it that philosophers do?

I like how John Chaffee puts it, “Philosophy is a dynamic process. This definition probes the dynamic nature of philosophical thinking, a process that is dialectical in the sense that ideas are continually analyzed in terms of their opposites, with the ultimate goal of creating a more enlightened synthesis.” (The Philosopher’s Way, 7)

Just as there is a scientific method, there are also methods for doing philosophy, among the chief of these methods is the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method is “characterized by relentless questioning, clear definitions, dialectical analysis, and critical evaluation.” (Chaffee, The Philosopher’s Way, 7)

It’s necessary for us to distinguish between “having a philosophy” and “doing philosophy.” Just about everyone will likely say that they have a philosophy of life and by this they mean that they live by a set of beliefs or codes that help them decide how to act. We typically develop these beliefs early in our lives as we seek models for how to comport ourselves in the world. Sometimes we have great models, other times we don’t. It is often the case that we are unaware of our beliefs—we may even say that we don’t have a philosophy of life, even though we nonetheless structure our lives with these beliefs. For example, we may unconsciously help an elder across the street, perhaps without thinking about what this decision reflects about us.

There are plenty of examples of irrational, or incoherent beliefs that we carry with us or that people in our networks espouse. The media and the banks are controlled by a cabal of liberal Jews, fluoride is inserted into our drinking water to make us more susceptible to propaganda, Bush did 9/11, etc. Often our biases and beliefs are unexamined or unknown to ourselves, as the neuroscience of implicit bias has helped us to better articulate.

To “do philosophy” requires us to think philosophically and this means engaging our thoughts, beliefs, and actions critically. Typical questions for critical engagement would include:

    • What is the factual evidence or reasons for my beliefs?
    • Do I have a compelling rationale for saying I know something to be true?
    • Where did these ideas I have come from, who told me that?
    • Who benefits from me thinking and acting in these ways?

Doing philosophy requires a range of advanced thinking techniques and methods that we will be discussing in this class over the course of the semester. I am going to stress and emphasize to you that doing philosophy, like any other skill or technique you cultivate, is a matter of habit. This course has been designed to promote and encourage your philosophy habits.

What is wisdom in the context of our class?

From Andrew Pessin and S. Morris Engel, The Study of Philosophy: A Text with Readings, seventh edition. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015):
“Wisdom is not something achieved merely by discovering some new fact. In this respect philosophy is unlike science. The failure to solve a scientific problem lies, generally, in our inability to get at some missing piece of information. But this is not the reason that many philosophical problems have continued to elude us. It is not for the lack of some fact that philosophical problems escape solution. In many cases the trouble is that we already have too many facts. It is like working at a massive jigsaw puzzle. Our difficulty assembling the puzzle does not normally lie in the fact that certain pieces are missing, but in the fact that we don’r see how the (say) thousand little pieces we have all fit together.” (3)

The discipline is characterized well by the English philosopher, John Wisdom, philosophy is not “knowledge of new fact” but rather “new knowledge of fact” which Pessin and Engel describe as “a deeper understanding of the facts we already have.” (4) We come to this “new knowledge of facts” through a process of disciplined perspective-making.

Philosophy is similar to science and religion in so far as each of these disciplines seeks to answer fundamental questions about the universe and our place in it. These three disciplines also each share a common source: they each begin with wonderment. They are similar in these regards but they differ, greatly, in how they go about their examinations and seek to arrive at very different outcomes.

What Does Philosophy Mean?

Ancient Greek Boxers
Boxers represented on a Panathenaic amphora.

“Ways of Knowing” Week 1, Lecture 1

Learning Objective 2:
Define “philosophy.”

What does the word “philosophy” mean?

The word “philosophy” comes to us from the ancient Greek term φιλοσοφια (philosophia, “love of wisdom), coined by Pythagoras (570–490 BCE). The term came to him while observing the Olympic games. As the games unfolded it occurred to him that much of what life is about can be seen in the drama of the games: the struggle between men reveals the character of each of the participants in a way that can be read as an analogy for the daily struggles among the non-athletes present. We can identify with their struggles.

Pythagoras noted that there are three classes of people at the Olympic games. Reflect on the last time you went to a sporting event, especially a large professional game. Who do you encounter at these games, almost immediately after parking your car at the stadium (or as you leave the train or bus)? Do we not, almost immediately, meet people looking to sell you something (water, scalping tickets, team-related merchandise)? This is an ancient scenario, present from at least as early as the original Olympic games in the sixth century BCE. Pythagoras named these folks who come to the games to trade and barter “lovers of gain.” Of course, once the games begin we are focused on the competition between people who have traveled to the stadium in order to earn fortune and fame (for themselves and their cities). Pythagoras called these folks “lovers of honor.” The third class of people that Pythagoras observed at the Olympic games were the spectators: us, the people who have come to watch, “lovers of spectacle.”

The world is full of these three classes of folks, according to Pythagoras. The vast majority of people, he holds, are largely motivated by and concerned primarily with gaining material wealth. The second class of persons is smaller than the first, this group is primarily concerned with achieving fame by distinguishing themselves in some kind of pursuit. The third class is smaller than either of the prior two, the few people who compose this tiny group are the folks who don’t care about fortune or fame but are instead busy trying to understand the spectacle that is life. Pythagoras called these people “philosophers.” It is not that these people are themselves wise—because only the gods were wise—but these people were lovers of the wisdom that could be revealed on earth when the gods intervened and let humans know their intentions.

Next we will consider the question, “how does one ‘do’ philosophy?” and this is related to your first major writing assignment.

Why Study Philosophy?

Painting: "Diogenes in His Tub"
“Diogenes Sitting in His Tub” (1860) by Jean-Léon Gérôme

“Ways of Knowing” Week 1, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain why Philosophy should be studied.
  2. Define “philosophy.”

Two asides.

First, some business about exams and learning

Before we proceed any further, please take a moment and review these learning objectives above.

If you are wondering—as any reasonable student would wonder—”what is going to be on our midterm?” then please review the learning objectives that I post at the beginning of each lecture.

You can expect that the questions on the midterm and the final exams will be drawn from these learning objectives. In other words, if you make effective notes based on doing what the learning objectives state, then you will likely do very well on my examinations.

Second, some poetry for your thinking

Please read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo by following this link.

This poem is referenced in Dr. Allen’s Talking with Strangers, which is your first reading assignment.

Learning Objective 1
Explain why Philosophy should be studied

From John Chaffee. The Philosopher’s Way: Thinking Critically About Profound Ideas, fifth edition. (Boston: Pearson, 2016), 2–3.

“Studying philosophy in a serious and reflective way will change you as a person. Learning to think philosophically will inspire you to be more thoughtful, more open-minded, more attuned to the complexities and subtleties of life, more willing to think critically about yourself and all of life’s important issues, and less willing to accept superficial interpretations and simplistic answers. It is very tempting for people not to think, to remain submerged in reality rather than aware of it, to be carried along by the current of events rather than creating their destiny through thoughtful, independent choices. Philosophy is a training guide for your mind, showing you how to think in clear, analytic, and powerful ways.
Studying philosophy will help you develop the understanding and insight you will need to make intelligent choices and fulfill your potential as an individual. To use a metaphor, you are an artist, creating your life portrait, and your paints and brushstrokes are the choices you make each day.
Creating an enlightened self-portrait is your preeminent responsibility in life, and though it is challenging work, it is well worth the effort. Your portrait is your contribution to the world, your legacy to present and future generations.
This is the special power of philosophy: to provide the conceptual tools required to craft a life inspiring in its challenges and rich in fulfillment.
Philosophy provides us with the intellectual tools to reflect with clarity and discipline, to critically evaluate the choices we have made, and to use this knowledge to make more enlightened choices in the future.”

Now, you might, reasonably, counter Chaffee and I and argue, “well, of course, you both think I should study Philosophy: you’re both philosophers and need students to justify your salaries.”

Yes, and there are also folks out there who would gain very little direct benefit from your studies of Philosophy. For example:

Click here for Learning Objective 2:
Define Philosophy and discuss its ultimate aim.

Human Head Transplants in China

Karen Rommelfanger and I wrote an editorial for Newsweek discussing some of the ethical issues we think need to be discussed.

It’s a short piece for a general readership.

We also wrote a more scholarly editorial introducing (here) the new special issue of AJOB Neuroscience, the official journal of the International Neuroethics Society, dedicated to Canavero et al’s procedure.

Teaching and Gongfu

I’m teaching five sections of a General Education Introduction to Philosophy course this semester and I’m grateful for this 功夫 (gongfu/kung fu) practice. I am revisiting Peimin Ni’s writings about Confucius and to him I am grateful and will make liberal references.

Before I decided to go to college I was fortunate to study Shaolin Dao with Master Michael Reid and his teacher, Gary Grooms.  It was in that martial context that I was first told that “kung fu” doesn’t refer to fighting but means something like “time invested.” I credit the training I received from Master Reid and my peers with my future academic successes (such as they are).

Peimin Ni helps us understand the phrase even more:

“Originally used to describe human labor during the third and fourth centuries, the term gongfu was later developed into a locus from which a cluster of meanings emerged, referring to the time and effort spent on something, the ability to accomplish intended results, and the result of such effort and abilities. Consequently it came to be used broadly for all the arts of life that require cultivated abilities and effective skills, be it the arts of cooking, speaking, dancing, dealing with human relationships, or the art of living in general.” (Ni, xii)

“Every Day Is a Good Day,”
Fukushima Keido Roshi, ca 2003.

Given my large teaching load, I have had course design anxieties. I’ve been trying to get my classes more accessible because accessibility is a federal right and I am encountering a large number of students so I am statistically more likely to work with folks who will need accommodations. But, really, everyone benefits from a more intentionally accessible course. My course is primarily concerned with habits, especially habits of citizenship (I bookend the semester with Danielle S. Allen’s book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education).

As I have pursued a more accessible course design I am encountering unforeseen benefits from working with the accommodations that my students request.  Specifically I am having to think more clearly about what is important and how I can best communicate that.

The class I’ve built treats writing as an iterative process, the assignments are repetitive and provide opportunities for the students to practice metacognitive skills (i.e. they’re learning about how they learn, thinking about how they read, writing about how they write).

For example, before each class meeting my students are required to have read primary source material and to have generated at least one well-written question about that material so that we can discuss the reading in class.

To help my students craft their questions I first assign them to read, and subsequently bring to every class meeting, Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ handout “Some Notes On How To Ask A Good Question About Theory That Will Provoke Conversation And Further Discussion From Your Colleagues.”

Writing one question for each class is a low-stakes assignment that encourages my students to critically engage with the assigned readings, rather than riffing on a theme they’ve noticed in their reading and asking questions that might make sense to them but tend to lead class discussion into areas that aren’t necessarily useful for the class as a whole.

I then require that my students submit a reading outline in which I ask them to paraphrase, in one or two sentences, each paragraph of an assigned reading and then write a sentence or two in which they tell me where the author’s argument “clicked” for them.

When I introduce this assignment to my students I tell them that this is an assignment designed to get them thinking about how they read and retain the information they are reading. I tell them that this assignment will benefit them if they practice this kind of note-taking, no matter what the course they are in and regardless of their major (although they should all want to be Philosophy majors). The assignment contributes 10% of their final grade, so it’s not a massive project but it’s also not a trifle.

Like this metacognitive reading outline, I follow-up this assignment with an argument outline wherein my students practice tracing out the premises/evidence/reasons/presuppositions that support the arguments made by the authors in their assigned readings. If philosophy has a method, (of course it does and I juxtapose the methods used in science and religion to clarify the differences) this would be it, I tell them.

If in my teaching I only went up to the lectern and spoke about my opinions and recited my (granted, hard-earned) knowledge, I don’t think I’d be doing my students, my university, my state (I teach at a state university), my profession, or myself any favors. I’d be going through the motions but education can be a transformative process when teaching and learning happen in the appropriate manner. In this way I am thinking about what Cheng Yi (1033-1107) said during the Song dynasty, “Nowadays people no longer know how to read. When they read the Analects, for instance, they are the same kind of people before they read the book and after they read the book. This is no different from not having read the book.”

Zhu Xi resonates with Cheng here when he states:

“In reading the Analects and the Mencius one should not merely aim at understanding the theory and the meanings of the text. One should make careful reflection and put the teachings into practice [….] If a reader can relate the sages’ sayings to his own person and examine them through his own embodied practice, his effort will surely not be spent in vain. Every day will bring him the result (gong 功) of the day. If one only takes the books as collections of sayings, it would be merely the learning of the mouth and the ears.” (Zhu, Du Lunyu Mengzi Fa, 3)

The work I’m asking my students to do means I must do a kind of work that that is really interesting to me and puts me into a relationship with the readings and my office that is often unexpected and rewarding.

I am really grateful to my students for meeting me like this, so that we’re both putting in the effort, we’re practicing a mode of gongfu.

Atlanta as a Site for Critical Inquiry for Contemporary Art Students

Below is the abstract for what I’ll be presenting at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning’s Annual Conference on Scholarly Teaching in May.

I’ve written about these matters previously, for Burnaway/ArtsATL and for Art Papers. These ideas are also a significant part of my essay published in Dawn Keetley’s edited volume, “We’re All Infected” Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human.

I love talking about these issues (I’ve talked about these things at the Zombethics Symposium, for example) and would love to come talk with you and your folks, please contact me and let’s book a visit. You can see my upcoming events here.

Andy Warhol 129 Die in Jet (1962) acrylic and pencil on canvas
Museum Ludwig, Cologne © 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

In this presentation I will discuss how I incorporate Atlanta Studies into my ART 3910 Critical Thinking Through Writing course, “Issues in Contemporary Art” curriculum. June 3, 2017, will mark the fifty-fifth anniversary of the doomed Air France Flight 007 in which 106 of Atlanta’s leading arts patrons died at Orly Airport outside of Paris. Only two people out of 132 would walk away from that crash. It was the worst air disaster in history to that point. The impact of this tragedy on Atlanta was enormous. The accident left thirty-one children orphaned, and the broader metro area continues to grapple with this tragedy today. The most obvious result of the Orly explosion is the creation of the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center, renamed the Woodruff Arts Center in 1982. Robert W. Woodruff, the Coca-Cola magnate and future namesake of the enormous cultural center on Peachtree Street, was initially guided by the head of his foundation and former president of Oglethorpe University, Dr. Philip Weltner, to build an arts complex in Piedmont Park. This would have been a natural choice at the time because Piedmont Park had become the site of the annual Arts Festival. The plan to finance the building of this cultural center, however, failed to pass a public referendum in August of 1962, in no small part due to the charged racial atmosphere. There were two reasons for this failed referendum. First, the strongest link between the Atlanta Arts Alliance and the city’s Cultural Needs Committee, Del Paige, had died in the wreckage at Orly. Second, Woodruff insisted on donating the initial $4 million anonymously. The white power structure of the time allowed a whisper campaign suggesting that the mysterious donor was actually the family of millionaire Alonzo Herndon, a “negro” family.

Not only does Atlanta enjoy the privilege of hosting the largest collecting art institution in the region as a result of this tragedy, but the Orly disaster has also had a significant impact on the development of contemporary art across the globe. Andy Warhol found an image of the Orly disaster on the front page of the New York Mirror. This image was the basis for Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet (Plane Crash), and it was the cataclysmic loss of Atlanta’s most active arts patrons that launched Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings (in 2007, his Green Car Crash III would fetch $71.7 million at a Christie’s auction). Contemporary Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn stated in the pages of ARTFORUM that it was viewing Warhol’s 129 Die in Jet in 1978 that made him aware that he needed to be an artist. “It was the first time in my life that art had an impact on me, the first time I was directly in dialogue with it,” he said, “129 Die in Jet changed my life.” It is my aspiration that learning about and critically engaging with the events surrounding this terrible disaster will also change the lives of my students.

That Girl Ain’t Your Friend

Arturo Di Modica is upset about Kristen Visbal’s sculpture in front of his  sculpture. The story circulating in social media and “news” outlets is that Di Modica feels hurt. Who cares? The conversations I’ve had so far with folks, smart folks whom I like mind you, is something along the lines of, “Sorry, Charlie, she’s powerful and you’re gonna hafta suck it up, Buttercup.”

I’m livid about this.

Folks don’t seem to care that both sculptures are exercises in affective warfare. They are weaponized narratives deployed by “corporate persons” against homo sapiens.

Di Modica’s narrative is that he “gifted” his $360,000 sculpture to the American people in the wake of Black Monday, a monument to the “strength and power of the American people.” Never mind that his gift was delivered two years after the economic crisis. Never mind how an artist just has more than a quarter million dollars to just give away.

Visbal’s narrative is that she created a monument to the value of “gender diversity in the workplace.” And, as it turns out, you—yes! you!—can purchase that gender diversity by investing in SHE (State Street Global Advisors’ SPDR Gender Diversity Index ETF). State Street is, according to Wikipedia (I know, lazy me), the third largest asset management firm in the world. It’s leadership is 18% women, it’s parent company’s leadership is 28% women, as Jillian Steinhauer points out.

What do we call art that is deployed entirely for the purpose of benefitting a massive multinational finance corporation? Is it not advertising? This is the artistic equivalent of greenwashing or pinkwashing. It is not a liberatory gesture.

This whole kerfluffle is ridiculous and cynical and cruel.

Cruel because it is this cynical leveraging of a common desire for women’s liberation and a desire to enact a society that is capable of providing the material needs for all that would support their neighbors.

It seems to me that the sculpture is the equivalent of waving a bucket of water in front of a person stranded in the desert for three days.

It figuratively whispers in our ears from behind us in a dark corner (this, our continually darkening corner of human history—as we dismantle the social safety net and rain terror across the planet), “You like that? You like that dontcha? You like how I did that?”

The message of this sculpture is, effectively, “You don’t need to imagine a world without capitalism, just be a young girl (cf. Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl). Be the neoliberal subject that our processes of capital extraction require and feel the power of being nobody but what our marketing team tells you to be.”

A smart person I like wrote to me that they felt these two publicity stunts cancel one another out add up to a (completely ineffectual) unintended liberatory gesture. Good conversation has come from two not very defensible pieces of statuary. But so far, only good conversation, just as with most deliberately political art.

I must be traveling in the wrong circles because the only conversation I’ve been having is with folks who doe-eyed tell me about this girl sculpture and how bold it is and then I’m the jerk that has to point out their revolution has been sold to them by the same forces of capital that insist on their oppression.