Sojourning in the Art World: Service Learning in the Philosophy of Art

Dan Lloyd
Department of Philosophy
Trinity College

Not too long ago the trustees of my college decided to update the artistic holdings of our campus, and to this end they set out to acquire a contemporary work of art for permanent display in the College art museum. Not being timid, the trustees wanted a challenging, cutting-edge work, preferably from the West Coast, but they felt they lacked the expertise to find and buy the right piece. As it happened, a few of them had heard of my interest in modernism and its philosophical challenges, and so I found myself with an unusual assignment: I was to fly to Los Angeles with a ten thousand dollar check and bring back something distinguished, a unique object to be discussed and appreciated for years to come.

I relished my task, but for the wrong reasons. I have good friends in LA, and I used my official trip to spend time doing some unofficial socializing. Too much time as it turned out. I put off my foray into the LA Art World until suddenly it was my last day, and I had done nothing to complete my commission. My flight was barely two hours away as I rushed into one of the top galleries. The folks there were very helpful, however. Yes, they told me, they had just the work for me, at exactly the price I could afford. It was a small recent sculpture by J____, a dynamic post-modernist with degrees from Yale and NYU and a considerable resume of solo and group shows, mainly in California. This particular untitled work was small and light — carry-on baggage. Indeed, they had just received it from J’s studio, and had not even unpacked it from its crate. Would I like to see it? My cab was waiting. Without even looking at the work, I told them I’d take it. I hastily signed the check over to the gallery, and slipped my acquisition, still in its crate, in a duffle, and caught my flight with minutes to spare.

I was pleased. What I had heard of J. reassured me that he had the status and ability to execute something notable, controversial, even brilliant. I returned to my office with the duffle bag and called my contact among the trustees, who set out immediately to see the work and congratulate me on a job well done. I cleared off my desk, and popped open the crate, eagerly unwinding the bubble wrap around J’s magnum opus. But when I pulled off the last wrapper, I found not a sculpture but a joke. The “work” was nothing but a package of Twinkies, direct from a convenience store, complete with its sixtynine cent price tag. With alarm and confusion, I called the LA gallery that sold me the piece. Yes, they said, that’s the work — a package of Twinkies. No, J had not executed a brilliant copy of a package of Twinkies; he had, as I feared, simply gone out and bought the Twinkies and declared them to be his latest untitled work. No, I would not be entitled to a refund of $9,999.31. I had, after all, purchased a work by the famous artist J. If I merely wanted a snack, I could go to the convenience store for myself.

I hung up the phone and stared at the Twinkies in heart-pounding disbelief. A Trustee of my college — my employer — would be arriving any moment. My only hope, desperate as it was, would be to convince her that this very package of Twinkies was a work of art, indeed, an interesting, even a good, work of art. At my door I heard a knock. What could I say? What could I say?

With this thought experiment I open my version of a Philosophy of Art course, also known as Art/Hartford. My students’ immediate task, prior to any other exposure to the philosophy of art, is to save my job by constructing their best case for J’s untitled work of art. To help them, I unwind J’s work from its bubblewrap and carefully place it before them. Then I reach into a paper bag for an ordinary package of Twinkies — they can confirm that the two are indiscernible. The students regard J’s “work” with disdain, but they soon warm to the job of distinguishing it from its ordinary counterpart: It is, first, ridiculously expensive — perhaps this makes it art. It was certified as art by the gallery from which I bought it. In the most relevant sense, it was created by a “real” artist, with training and credentials. It was destined for a pedestal here at the college, and would have a little bronze plaque installed at its base, and a good theft alarm. With a little more discussion, they begin to recognize that J’s work has very different content from the ordinary Twinkies. The work is ironic, humorous. By exalting a piece of junk food, the work underscores the extremes of our consumerist, mass-produced, disposable, and ultimately trashy, culture. It invites our reflection on the internal contradictions of the package, with its jaunty garish graphics, versus its dismal nutritional values, versus the list of chemicals from which a Twinkie is made (or extruded). None of this reflective content is present in the ordinary Twinkie, which is, after all, a mere 69 cent snack. Its “content,” if it has any, is simply “Eat me!” But unlike J’s work, it actively discourages the reflective consideration that J’s piece actively provokes. The two could not be more different.

The example and my students’ interpretation of it quickly immerses them in the philosophical challenge posed by modern art. Modernism, especially Pop Art, made it a mission to push on the boundaries of art works and ordinary things, leading eventually to cases very similar to my imagined Twinkies — Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and Soup Cans, for example. Modernism makes the point, in various ways, that there need be no discernible difference between a work of art and an ordinary thing.

This perspective on art reflects the theoretical perspective championed by Arthur Danto, one of the wittiest and most provocative contemporary writers on art. “J” is a favorite artist of Danto’s, too, often invoked to highlight intuitions about the nature of art.. The Tales of J develop the theory that artworks are products of an Art World, constituted essentially by a network of relations between artists, galleries, critics, and audiences. And this conception of art opens the way toward a meaningful service learning component in a Philosophy of Art course. The Art World has its outposts in the various arts in every city and town. In every art institution, daily discourse and decision contribute to the overall creation of the boundaries of art, and to community standards for good art. As it happens, most art institutions run on small budgets, and can use the clerical services of students. In return, students can listen to, or perhaps even contribute to, the street level and streetwise discussions and daily system of artistic production.

To perceive the everyday activities of the Community Cultural Center, the local Repertory Theater, the Senior Citizens’s Craft Center, the Downtown Gallery, or the Civic Ballet as constituting and creating the Art World requires a reflective reconsideration of those activities. In Art/Hartford the first and most essential engine of reflection was the course itself. In the classroom, students read and discussed a number of “greatest hits” in the philosophy of art. These including Plato on imitation, Aristotle on tragedy, Kant on the beautiful, Tolstoy, Bell, Langer, Danto, and others, as well as genre-specific writers, like Clement Greenberg, who raise specific philosophical issues for the various fine arts. In the first part of the course, we focused on the nature of Art in general. In the second part we turned to genres, following the interests of the students, interests also reflected in their community placements. At some point in every class I could raise a question about how the issues in the reading are reflected in students’ ongoing community experience. The connection was always there.

The first part of the course was historically ordered, and so we began with an opposition between Plato (Republic, Books III and X) and Aristotle (Poetics) on the value of art and the specific desiderata of good art. Not surprisingly, these issues loomed large in students’ community experiences as well. First and foremost, the students saw real contemporary art in a societal context, deeply conditioned by capitalism and politics. These extra-aesthetic forces could be usefully contrasted with the theoretical standards of Plato and Aristotle, and the theme was prominent again with Tolstoy (What is Art?) and in its conspicuous absence in Clive Bell’s discussion of art as Significant Form. Institutional theories of art, like Danto’s and Dickie’s, came later in the historical sequence, but to good effect. The course was ripe for a thorough look at the contexts of art works, and the students were certainly alert to the issue after some weeks in the Art World themselves.

A secondary theme running through the course was the distinction between art and craft. This too emerged with Plato, but found its fullest development in Collingwood. In the real Art World outposts of student experience the distinction was often fuzzy. They saw beautiful and powerful works by “outsiders” to the official Art World, as well as insider works of dubious value. They wondered if they themselves could make art, or, by some sort of declaration of intent, become “real” artists. (As a course project, I encouraged students to create their own works in the spirit of J, and interpret them for the class.)

Every service learning experience I’ve overseen (or engaged in myself) has led to a questioning of assumptions, and the experiences of Art/Hartford were no exception. Students arrived in the course with a romantic conception of the artist as a solitary genius at work in isolation from the mundane world, a special person with a mystical designation and calling. This lofty conception of high art informs much of the official history of art, and it is not explicitly challenged in the canon of aesthetics. But in the communities of Hartford no artist is an island, and the production of art is subject to social forces no less than other productions. This led the participants in Art/Hartford to a vivid realization of the interplay of art and social justice. That is, the question of “What is art?” rapidly transformed into a series of “Who” questions: Who makes art? In our society, who _can_ make art — who has the recources, the credentials, the sanction? For whom is the work made? Who can appreciate it? Who is allowed in the gallery door — with the education, the interests, and the time to appreciate art? And with each of these questions we raised the possibility that many institutions and practices of the art world would systematically and invisibly elitist.

But at the same time the diversity of service learning placements in the course illuminated the multiplicity of art worlds. Quite apart from the valorized and heroic New York Art World are all the individuals and groups making art out of their own experiences. Two students, for example, worked with a textile art workshop at a Senior Center located in the North End of Hartford, in the African American community. The artists there, some making art for the first time, worked in blissful ignorance of the rise and fall of -isms in the world of high art. The value of these artworks was in no way diminished by their distance from the romance of solitary genius.

Feminist and Marxist critics, among others, have long observed that the official high art world is often elitist and that writing about art often ignores the plurality of art worlds in a society. But that critique is beautifully realized in the experience of students sojourning in the art world. Their street-level encounters with art animated every classroom discussion and student writing. As I mentioned above, the primary engine of reflection was our class discussions of the reading. Reflection could be encouraged through other means as well:

1. Reflective writing. Service learning is of marginal value without careful thought about the interaction of community experience with classroom learning. Discussion facilitates this interaction, but, of course, writing is no less important. In my opinion, every sort of writing is improved if it is done in public — that is, if student essays are circulated to the class. Accordingly, in most of my classes students converse with each other electronically, usually in some sort of “chat room” format, but also through the exchange of drafts of longer essays.

2. Reflection in the community. Research projects in the philosophy of art can draw on the expertise of local citizens of the Art World, including artists. These conversations illuminate another thread running through the philosophy of art, namely, theories of artistic creation and the psychology of the artist. This need not end with a student report or term paper. Rather, what students discover can be presented back to the community, to foster the same reflective atmosphere that service learning creates in the classroom. At Trinity we have several means of integrating community voices in education and research, and returning the fruits of learning to the community. Artists can be interviewed to produce video documentaries, which are then aired on local cable TV (often in the schools). Or, courses can culminate in public events — panels, debates, presentations — offered to both on-campus and off-campus audiences.

3. The professor in the field. For each type of service learning I’ve introduced in my courses, I’ve found it very helpful to participate in a project myself. Art/Hartford led to an ongoing affiliation with the Connecticut Prison Association (recently renamed Community Partners in Action) and their Prison Arts Programs. Prison Art is compelling Outsider Art, and raises many issues about alternative Art Worlds. It is also a vivid and concrete reflection of the diverse and specific lives of prisoners. As a philosopher, I am challenged in many ways — aesthetically, morally, and politically — by this art. My experience is thus like that of my students. It informs my teaching. No less important, it informs my life.

In conclusion, my experiments with service learning in several philosophy courses, including Art/Hartford, suggest that service learning is inherently philosophical. While it does contribute to the welfare of the community and also increases the civic engagement of students, neither of these outcomes is what I value most. Rather, it is the reflective connection students make between what they read and what they experience. The encounter is inevitably Socratic, as students discover the incompleteness and falsity of their assumptions, and it is equally Aristotelian, in the sense that their encounters lead them to a richer, more articulated description of the world around them. In the real world, a package of Twinkies might be art — or it might not — but in the arftermath of aesthetic service learning, students never again see art as a cultural “given,” but instead begin to appreciate the diversity of voices and interests that intersect in the production of art.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to the students of Art/Hartford or all their insight, and to David Lisman for helpful questions and advice.

Appendix. The course syllabus:


What is art?
What makes a work of art good or bad?
How do aesthetic values hook up with other kinds of values?
How do artworks reflect the values and practices of the communities in which they are created?
What is the nature of specific genres of art (e.g. painting, film, drama, performance art, photography…)?
What is beauty?
What can the city and people of Hartford teach us about these questions?

These are the central questions of the philosophy of art, also known as aesthetics. In ART/HARTFORD we will discuss these central questions from the philosophy of art in the context of the contemporary art of area artists and performers. In our class meetings, we will read and discuss important works in the philosophy of art. These include classic philosophical writers (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Tolstoy, Bell, Langer, Danto, and others) as well as genre-specific writers who raise specific philosophical issues for the various fine arts. Through our readings we will become fluent in the traditional frameworks of aesthetics, but we will also examine theoretical challenges to those frameworks, particularly the challenge raised by feminism and other new voices.

Outside of class we will look for artworks that challenge us. These works will be the case studies for the semester. Whenever possible, we will experience the works themselves through a variety of formal and informal “field trips.” (We live in the field. Art is everywhere.)

In addition, students in the course will explore the nature of art at its point of origin, at the side of artists. To this end, a small part of extracurricular time each week will be spent in a “microinternship” at an area art institution. (You may also satisfy the out-of-class requirement through a separate one-credit internship under my supervision, with ART/HARTFORD (and an additional internship paper) as its academic component.)


Fusion. Through discussion, we work together to enlarge our experience of art and to deepen our thought about it. No one, including the professor, is a final authority. The learning we achieve will be a communal project, built upon the commitment and effort of everyone in the course. The learning in this course will not be packaged. Be prepared for ART/HARTFORD insights/incites/in-sites to strike at any moment. Collaboration and community are key.


  1. Class attendance is essential to keep the course coherent and to fulfill your role as teacher and colleague.
  2. The course readings are essential frameworks and common ground for all our discussions.
  3. Electronic discussion. ART/HARTFORD will have a bulletin board all to itself. That BB will be divided into topics. You will be contributing to the e-discussion twice a week (or more, if you feel like it), adding to any topic you choose. Here are the topics to start:
    • Great art. Your recommendations of shows/events/works that you think others will appreciate.
    • Puzzle cases. Shows/events/works that challenge the concept of art or other concepts discussed in the course. You’ll describe and analyze your puzzle cases.
    • Reading and class discussion, continued. Issues that arise through the readings, in anticipation of or response to class discussion.
    • Your choice. The program allows you to create topics. Ultimately, the BB itself will become a student-designed work of electronic art.
  4. Collaborative work analysis. Shortly after reading week, you and a partner will analyze one work of art/? in terms of the authors read up to that point. This paper will be about five pages long.
  5. Micro-internship. You’ll spend a few hours a week at an area art institution, doing what needs doing but, with luck, learning how art happens. I’ll help you make initial contacts and get started. Plan to write a report on your experience at the end of the semester.
  6. Art work. Much of modern art tests the boundaries of art, and at the boundaries art is less a matter of skill or craft than it is of conception and idea. Your final work of the semester will be an art/? work, executed somehow on the Trinity campus. Plan to use only the materials you can scarf up for free.
  7. One-minute papers. We will often end class with these quick summaries of the important issues of the day.

READINGS, Part 1 (Provisional)

All are from Dickie, Sclafani, and Roblin, Aesthetics, a Critical Anthology, available in the bookstore.

1. Plato (pp. 1-32)
2. Aristotle (pp. 32-57)
3. Tolstoy (pp. 57-73)
4. Bell (pp. 73-96)
5. Collingwood (pp. 96-133)
6. Mandelbaum/Weitz/Tilghman (pp. 133-171)
7. Danto (pp. 171-196)
8. Dickie (pp. 196-219)

This will take us to reading week.