Philosophy of Art

What’s more beautiful: the Mona Lisa or your mom? Is that even a fair comparison? I mean, your mom isn’t one of the most famous works of art ever. She isn’t even a piece of art. But what about a photograph of your mom? What about a photograph of the Mona Lisa? Is that as beautiful as the real thing? Is it even art? If these are the kinds of questions that keep you up at night, then philosophy of art is for you! 🎨 

Philosophy of art is a subfield of aesthetics, one of the five major branches of philosophy. While aesthetics thinks about why anything ever is beautiful, or what beauty is, philosophy of art asks these questions about art itself. The philosophy of art isn’t just art criticism. Art criticism asks questions like “Why is that music making me feel sad?” Obviously, the answer is because it’s by Josh Groban, but like in many parts of philosophy, to make that question philosophical, you just make it shorter: “Why is that music?” 

Philosophers have had a lot of answers to questions like this throughout the years. Take Plato for instance. When it comes to art, think of Plato like the pastor from Footloose and think of art like Kevin Bacon. Kevin Bacon says he wants to do his thing and dance, and Pastor Plato wants to squash his dreams. Plato thought that art was a corruption of reality. For Plato, reality was one step worse than the “forms,” basically like the most perfect version of anything ever, and art was images of reality, which he explains in The Republic is even further from perfect. Why would we want to move in the opposite direction? Basically – no dancing. Hegel, on the other hand, thought art basically rocked. He thought that beauty is the closest we can ever get to understanding the way things actually are, and, since the best art is beautiful, art is helping us understand the fundamental truths of the universe. Maybe it doesn’t always seem that deep, but even philosophers who seem to mostly write about other things get really into the philosophy of art, so it’s definitely worth investigating more!

Key Texts


  • Plato’s Philosophy of Art

    James Grant

  • Nelson Goodman: Art as Epistemology

    Mark Linsenmayer

  • Philosophy Bites: Aaron Meskin on the Definition of Art

    Aaron Meskin


Pop Culture Examples

  • Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

    R, 1h 27min

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  • The Art of the Steel (2009)

    Unrated, 1h 41min

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Want to Know More?

Questions to Think About

  • What is art?

  • Who gets to decide what art is?

  • Does art have to be beautiful?

  • Does art have to be made by people?

  • Is some art better than others?

  • Can forgeries count as art?

  • Does art have a good or bad influence on society?

Key Thinkers

  • Plato

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  • Immanuel Kant

  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

  • Morris Weitz

  • Arthur Danto

  • David Hume

  • Susanne Langer

 “File:Bust of Plato, Vatican Museum, Rome.jpg” by Dudva is licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

 “Le Jour ni l’Heure 7328 : Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Citoyen de Genève, 1712-1778, par Maurice-Quentin de la Tour, 1704-1788, deuxième version, 1759-1764, le Petit Montlouis, musée Jean-Jacques Rousseau de Montmorency, Val-d’Oise, samedi 11 août 2012,18:01:52” by Renaud Camus is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit 

 “Immanuel Kant” by Special Collections at Johns Hopkins University is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit 

 “Bildnis des G. W. F. Hegel” by ubleipzig is licensed with CC PDM 1.0. To view the terms, visit 

“David Hume” by Martin Beek is licensed with CC0 1.0 To view a copy of this license, visit

Key Terms

  • Aesthetics
    the branch of philosophy that studies what is beautiful
  • Value
    the function or contribution that the work of art brings

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