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Thinking about art: Philosophical approaches to art history

From the beautiful and the sublime, through the emotions, to politics, join us to learn how to connect philosophical concepts to art
Date
  • Tuesday, 2 April 2024
  • Tuesday, 9 April 2024
  • Tuesday, 16 April 2024
  • Tuesday, 23 April 2024
  • Tuesday, 30 April 2024
  • Tuesday, 7 May 2024
Time
3.30 - 5.30 pm BST
Available online only

About

Embark on a six-week course, in partnership with Kings College London’s Centre for Philosophy and Art, to explore the National Gallery’s collection anew by discovering connections to timeless philosophical puzzles. Each week, we will introduce and unravel a question about a different philosophical theme in dialogue with a painting in the National Gallery Collection.   

Over the six weeks we will cover the sublime, emotions, love and intimacy, empathy, beauty, and politics. You'll learn to recognise, articulate, and respond to the philosophical quandaries the pictures present, finding solutions by navigating between traditionally focused on art historical works and contemporary visual art.  

This course offers a blend of art appreciation and philosophical inquiry and is designed for curious-minded people who have not studied philosophy formally before. 

Image: Detail from François Bonvin, 'Still Life with Book, Papers and Inkwell', 1876

Week 1: Art and the sublime

Date
Tuesday, 2 April 2024
This event has ended.

The sublime, a mingled experience of awe and terror, is one of the central modes through which Western art has sought to capture the natural and supernatural worlds – from shipwrecks to volcanoes, to the Last Judgement itself. It is also one of the most important concepts for modern philosophy of art, mined for insight into everything from morality to ecology. 

In this introductory session with Sacha Golob, we begin with classic presentations of the concept from the Gallery’s collection, including paintings by Turner and Claude-Joseph Vernet. 

We will then explore how the idea has developed in modern paintings and photography as artists turned to industrial and urban or sublimes. 

Image: Detail from Claude-Joseph Vernet, 'A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas', 1773

Week 2: Art and emotion

Date
Tuesday, 9 April 2024
This event has ended.

In this second session, with Vanessa Brassey, we will start by examining the seemingly straightforward assumption that artworks can embody emotions such as sadness, happiness, or melancholy. How is it possible for a picture to be sad (or happy) when having or expressing emotions presupposes the existence of a mind? 

In addition to exploring various historical theories and recent neuroscience findings, by using the philosopher's toolkit, we will form our own opinions on how certain cherished works from the Gallery's collection appear to encapsulate and evoke a spectrum of emotions.  

Image: Detail from Vincent van Gogh, 'Sunflowers', 1888

Week 3: Art and intimacy

Date
Tuesday, 16 April 2024

In this session with Lucy McDonald, we will investigate the nature of intimacy, focusing in particular on love. What does it mean to love somebody? Some conceive of love as a kind of union between two people. Others argue that to love someone is to be selflessly concerned about their wellbeing, or to see them as especially valuable. 

We will look at several works from the Gallery's collection which support these different ideas. We will also reflect on the different forms love can take – from friendships to romantic partnerships – and on its potential dark side. 

Image: Detail from Jean-Antoine Watteau, 'The Scale of Love', probably 1717-8

Week 4: Art and empathy

Date
Tuesday, 23 April 2024

Although we now think of empathy as something we feel towards other people, it was originally thought of as the explanation of our high regard for works of art. 

In this week's session with Derek Matravers, we will look at the ‘empathy theory of beauty’; at the role of empathy in engaging with figurative art; and what role empathising with the artist plays in our appreciation of art. We will test these various claims on pictures from the Gallery's collection. 

Image: Detail from Diego Velázquez, 'Christ contemplated by the Christian Soul', probably 1628-9

Week 5: Art and beauty

Date
Tuesday, 30 April 2024

This fifth session, with Panos Paris, will explore prominent philosophical ideas about beauty in search of an answer to the question: what is beauty? To this end, we will broach more specific questions, notably: is beauty objective or in the eye of the beholder? Is it linked to moral values and the inner qualities of objects, or is it merely skin-deep? In exploring the nature of beauty, we will look at a number of works from the Gallery’s collection for guidance and to elucidate different theories. 

Image: Detail from Rembrandt, 'Self Portrait at the Age of 63', 1669

Week 6: Art and politics

Date
Tuesday, 7 May 2024

In this final session, alongside Vid Simoniti, we will trace the philosophical question of art’s political content. We take in Plato's banishment of the artist from his ideal state, to the place of art in political modernity, with the work of philosophers such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and W.E.B. Du Bois. 

You will be invited to draw connections between historical works and selected examples from the 21st century, while reflecting on ideas such as artistic objectivity, activism, and the place of art in a democratic society. This will equip you with a new critical lens through which to study the Gallery’s collection, and connect art of the past to art of the present day.  

Image: Detail from Jozef Israëls, 'Fishermen carrying a Drowned Man', probably 1861

Your tutors

Sacha Golob is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London and Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Art (CPA). He has published extensively on modern French and German philosophy and the philosophy of art. His current research explores moral progress and decline. www.sachagolob.com 

Vanessa Brassey is a Visiting Researcher at King's College London, specialising in the philosophy of art, the adeptness of perspective-taking, and the imaginative leaps possible across both space and time. She publishes papers, produces films, and is currently co-editing a book with Derek Matravers for Routledge, due out in spring 2024, focusing on the expression of emotion in the visual arts. She is also a figurative painter.  

Lucy McDonald is a Lecturer at King’s College London. She specialises in moral philosophy, feminist philosophy and philosophy of language. Her research explores the ethics of personal relationships. She has published papers on topics including flirting, compliments, sexual harassment, gaslighting, shame and dehumanisation. She enjoys writing public-facing philosophy in publications including 'The Times Literary Supplement' and 'Aeon', and she is an associate editor for the 'Journal of the American Philosophical Association'. 

Derek Matravers is Professor of Philosophy at The Open University and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. He has written 'Art and Emotion' (OUP, 1998), 'Introducing Philosophy of Art: Eight Case Studies' (Routledge, 2013); 'Fiction and Narrative' (OUP, 2014); and 'Empathy' (Polity, 2017). He is the author of numerous articles on aesthetics, ethics, and the philosophy of mind. He edits, with Paloma Atencia-Linares, 'The British Journal of Aesthetics' and is the Series Editor for 'Bloomsbury Aesthetics'. 

Panos Paris is Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University. An expert on aesthetics and the philosophy of art, he has published widely in reputable philosophy journals, on topics ranging from beauty and ugliness to the aesthetics and ethics of television series. He also co-founded the Scottish Aesthetics Forum, the Welsh Aesthetics Forum, and is a Trustee of the British Society of Aesthetics, as well as a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. 

Vid Simoniti is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of 'Artists Remake the World' (Yale UP, 2023), an investigation into art’s contribution to political life in the 21st century. With James Fox, he is co-editor of 'Art and Knowledge After 1900', an exploration of how artists have engaged with scientific discourse in the last hundred years.  Simoniti often appears on BBC Radio 3 as a cultural commentator and was a BBC New Generation Thinker 2021. 

Watch again

Can't make Tuesday afternoon but don't want to miss out? No problem, you can watch again.

'Thinking about art' sessions are recorded and made available to you for one week.

A video of the week's lecture will be uploaded and available for you to watch via your National Gallery account on Thursday afternoons, in time for the weekend.

Just be sure to watch it by the following Thursday lunchtime, as it will be taken down on Thursday afternoons.

Format

Each session lasts for 2 hours and includes a lecture delivered by the course lecturer followed by a short break and further discussion. 

Time will be allowed for questions and discussion via Q&A. 

Handouts will be available via your National Gallery account on Monday mornings. 

Optional homework is provided to help you prepare for the following week's session.

Booking information

This is an online ticketed course hosted on Zoom. Please book a ticket to access the course. Only one ticket can be booked per account. 

You will be emailed an E-ticket with instructions on how to access the course via your National Gallery account. All course information including your Zoom link, weekly handouts, and recordings will be available here. 

Your link will be valid for the duration of the course.

Booking after the course has started

You are welcome to join the module at any point during its six-week run. However, please note that you will only be able to see the recording from the previous session, as these are taken offline after one week.

Courses

Thinking about art: Philosophical approaches to art history

From the beautiful and the sublime, through the emotions, to politics, join us to learn how to connect philosophical concepts to art
Date
  • Tuesday, 2 April 2024
  • Tuesday, 9 April 2024
  • Tuesday, 16 April 2024
  • Tuesday, 23 April 2024
  • Tuesday, 30 April 2024
  • Tuesday, 7 May 2024
Time
3.30 - 5.30 pm BST
Available online only

Online tickets

Standard: £75
Concessions: £70.50

This is an online course, hosted on Zoom. 

Please book a ticket to access the event. You will receive an E-ticket with instructions on how to access your online events, films and resources via your National Gallery account. 

Please note, only one ticket can be booked per account. Bookings close ten minutes before the event. 

Concessions are for full-time students, jobseekers, and disabled adults.