Michael Newall is Director of the Aesthetics Research Centre and Convenor of the MA History & Philosophy of Art at Kent’s Canterbury and Paris campuses. From January 2018 he will also be Director of Graduate Studies (Taught Programmes) for the School of Arts.
Currently he is researching a number of interrelated topics including picture perception, perception of transparency and the transparency of perception, iconicity in pictures and perception, and impossible colours.
He has published two books, A Philosophy of the Art School (Routledge, 2019) and What is a Picture? Depiction, Realism, Abstraction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), and many articles in journals, including The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, The British Journal of Aesthetics, Curator: The Museum Journal, and The Philosophical Quarterly. In 2009 he was winner of the American Society for Aesthetics’ John Fisher Memorial Prize in Aesthetics. Originally he trained as a visual artist, completing a BA in Visual Arts, specialising in painting and sculpture, at the South Australian School of Art in 1997. He then worked as a critic and curator, before completing a PhD in Philosophy at Flinders University in 2004.
Much of my recent research in the philosophy of art focuses on the philosophy of pictures, but I also have an active interest in the application of analytic philosophy to art historical topics, including modern and contemporary art; and contemporary art school education. My work on the philosophy of pictures grew out of an interest developed during my time at art school in how pictures differ from other kinds of representations, such as language. There I was intrigued by, but dissatisfied with, the prevailing semiotic approach to this question. My recently published book
What is a Picture? (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) presents the outcome of my thinking on this subject. It argues for a new account of pictures as an intrinsically visual from of representation; and it applies this theoretical work in new ways, examining how such an account of pictures can bear on our understanding of pictorial art, from realism through to abstraction.
Currently I am beginning a new strand of research – which will involve a number of papers, and culminate in a book – on contemporary art school education. I’m aiming to develop a “philosophy of the art school”, that gives an account of what art schools impart to their students, and how they do this, in a way informed primarily by contemporary theories of art. Again, this is an interest that stems from my own time at art school. Increasingly since the 1960s (although perhaps on the wane today) the contemporary art student has been about as free as one can possibly be in an institutional setting. My new work is in a way intended to do justice to those freedoms by exploring their historical origins, their scope and the tensions between them and the rest of the contemporary world.
Much of my current teaching and research explores the potential for productive meetings of the two disciplines of art history and philosophy of art.
My current undergraduate and postgraduate teaching covers philosophy of art, aesthetics, and art history, with a special focus on contemporary art and modern art, as well as studio-based practice and professional practice.
I am particularly interested in working with research students on topics in the philosophy of art, including issues around pictures and visual art, and on philosophical and theoretical topics around contemporary art. If you have an idea for a MPhil or PhD proposal that you would like to try out on me, you’re welcome to get in touch.
Current and recent research students:
- Mike Walker (MPhil candidate)
- Ester Ipplito (MPhil candidate)
- Sarah Scanlon (MA candidate)
Newall, M. (2019). Art and the Approval of Nature: Philosophical Reflections on Tom Roberts, Holiday Sketch at Coogee (1888). Curator: The Museum Journal [Online] 62:53-60. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12287%E2%80%8B.
This paper, based on a talk given at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is presented as an example of philosophy done in an art gallery. Its subject is Tom Roberts’ painting Holiday Sketch at Coogee (1888), and as well as responding directly to the painting in the environment of the gallery, it draws on the author's memories of seeing that painting in other times and places. It draws on these personal experiences to relate Roberts’ painting to a controversial idea laid out by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, and to more recent conventionalist and resemblance theories of pictorial representation. It finishes by affirming one of Roberts’ important achievements: his discarding of inherited European ways of picture‐making, and his place among the first generation of non‐indigenous artists to represent the real colours of the Australian landscape.
Newall, M. (2015). Is Seeing-in a Transparency Effect?. British Journal of Aesthetics [Online] 55:131-156. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/aesthj/ayu101.
Philosophers of art use the term ‘seeing-in’ to describe an important part of our experience of pictures: we often ‘see’ a picture’s subject matter ‘in’ its surface. This paper proposes that seeing-in is illuminated by a perceptual phenomenon that has received extensive attention in perceptual psychology: the perception of transparency. It is generally accepted that transparency perception is governed by laws of ‘scission’. I argue that some instances of seeing-in can be straightforwardly understood as a kind of transparency effect, and that all seeing-in is illuminated by these laws.
Newall, M. (2015). Painterly and Planar: Wölfflinian Analysis Beyond Classical and Baroque. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism [Online] 73:171-178. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/jaac.12156.
The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin defines a range of formal characteristics – his famous "fundamental concepts" or "principles" of art history – with which he describes the Classical and Baroque styles. Aside from their historical coincidence in these styles, Wölfflin thought that the 'Classical' concepts had some special affinity, or "rational" quality binding them together, as did the 'Baroque' concepts. Equally, he believed, to combine 'Classical' and 'Baroque' concepts would be to combine "contradictory" tendencies. This paper explores what it is that link the concepts into Classical and Baroque groupings, and examines what happens when 'Classical' and 'Baroque' concepts appear together. Wölfflin barely touched on this at all, partly since from his point of view such combinations of his concepts obscures rather than illuminate the grand movement between Classical and Baroque which he saw as central to art history. Indeed, reading his Principles of Art History, one might have the impression that they do not exist; but they do, having a presence throughout post-Renaissance European art. I argue, that applying Wölfflin’s concepts to these works illuminates them in significant and unexpected ways.
Newall, M. (2012). Seeing-in is a Transparency Effect (draft paper).
Philosophers of art use the term “seeing-in” to describe an important part of our experience of pictures: we often “see” a picture’s subject matter “in” its surface. This paper proposes that seeing-in is an example of a perceptual phenomenon that has received extensive attention in perceptual psychology: the perception of transparency. It is generally accepted that transparency perception is governed by laws of “scission”. I argue that seeing-in is also subject to these laws, and that seeing-in can be understood as a kind of transparency effect. In the process I examine how such a proposal could account for apparent differences between seeing-in and transparency perception – in particular, the fact that we report that picture surfaces seem opaque rather than transparent – and develop a detailed alternative account of the phenomenology of pictures, including not only seeing-in but other forms of pictorial experience.
Newall, M. (2010). Pictorial Resemblance. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism [Online] 68:91-103. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6245.2010.01395.x.
Newall, M. (2009). Pictorial Experience and Seeing. British Journal of Aesthetics [Online] 49:129-141. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/aesthj/ayp002.
This paper proposes that pictorial experience, the experience that pictures give rise to when we
understand them, involves the non-veridical experience of seeing the picture’s subject matter. Using
phenomenological analysis and material from philosophy of mind and perceptual psychology, it
argues that both pictorial experience lacking awareness of the picture surface, such as illusion, and
pictorial experience that includes this awareness, i.e. seeing-in, should be understood in this way.
Newall, M. (2006). ’Pictures, Colours and Resemblance’. Philosophical Quarterly 56:587-595.
Newall, M. (2005). Picturing pictures: reply to Dilworth. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60:70 -73.
Newall, M. (2003). A restriction for pictures and some consequences for theories of depiction. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61:381-394.
Newall, M. (2018). A Philosophy of the Art School. [Online]. New York and London: Routledge. Available at: https://www.routledge.com/A-Philosophy-of-the-Art-School/Newall/p/book/9781138615984.
Until now, research on art schools has been largely occupied with the facts of particular schools and teachers. This book presents a philosophical account of the underlying practices and ideas that have come to shape contemporary art school teaching in the UK, the US and Europe. It analyses two models that, hidden beneath the diversity of contemporary artist training, have come to dominate art schools. The rst of these is essentially an old approach: a training guided by the artistic values of a single artist-teacher. The second dates from the 1960s and is based around the group crit, in which diverse voices contribute to an artist’s development. Understanding the underlying principles and possibilities of these two models, which sit together in an uneasy tension, gives new insights into the character of contemporary art school teaching, demonstrating how art schools shape art and artists, how they can be a potent engine of creativity in contemporary culture and how they contribute to artistic research. A Philosophy of the Art School draws on first-hand accounts of art school teaching and is deeply informed by disciplines ranging from art history and art theory to the philosophy of art, education and creativity.
Newall, M. (2010). What Is a Picture? : Depiction, Realism, Abstraction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
What is a picture? Is it a symbol, a likeness, a trigger of certain visual experiences or cognitive states? Each of these ideas, wrongly placed in competition by earlier theorists, gives some insight into what a picture is. This book draws together, criticises and refines these ideas to develop a new theory of pictures, that understands pictures to be an intrinsically visual from of representation. Using an approach deeply informed by art history and perceptual psychology, it explores the ramifications such a theory has for the visual arts, developing a new theory of pictorial realism, reconsidering the special status often granted to perspective-based realism in art, and giving a powerful new analysis of abstraction in modern painting.
Newall, M. (2019). Cries, Consensus and Criticality: Making Artists in the Contemporary Art School. In: Brisbin, C. and Thiessen, M. eds. The Routledge Companion to Criticality in Art, Architecture and Design. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 14-31. Available at: https://www.routledge.com/The-Routledge-Companion-to-Criticality-in-Art-Architecture-and-Design/Brisbin-Thiessen/p/book/9781138189232.
Newall, M. (2018). The Crit: Toward a theory of the contemporary art school. In: Brisban, C. and Thiessen, M. eds. Routledge Companion to Criticality in Art, Architecture and Design. Routledge. Available at: https://www.routledge.com/The-Routledge-Companion-to-Criticality-in-Art-Architecture-and-Design/Brisbin-Thiessen/p/book/9781138189232.
Newall, M. (2012). An Aesthetics of Transgressive Pornography. In: Maes, H. R. and Levinson, J. eds. Art and Pornography: Philosophical Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 206-228.
Newall, M. (2018). Pyke’s Portraits of Philosophers [blog post]. Available at: https://aestheticsforbirds.com/2018/06/22/pykes-portraits-of-philosophers/.
Newall, M. (2012). Book review: Philosophical Perspectives on Depiction. Analysis [Online] 72:408-410. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/analys/ans004.
Review of the book Philosophical Perspectives on Depiction, ed. C. Abell and K. Bantinaki, Oxford University Press, 2010
Geary, J. (2017). A Defence of the Study of Visual Perception in Art.
This thesis examines the use of the science of visual perception in the study of art. I argue that this application of perceptual psychology and physiology has been neglected in recent years, but contend that it is being revived by writers such as John Onians. I apply recent scientific research to demonstrate what can be learned about depiction from the science of perception.
The thesis uses the science of perception to argue that there are four main interlinked components in depiction. It argues that each of these components can be better understood by using the science of vision.
Chapter 1 examines one component, namely resemblance. It uses studies of the retina, centre-surround cells, and attentional processes to examine how a picture can vary in appearance from its subject matter, yet still represent it.
Chapter 2 examines a second component, namely informativeness. It applies Biederman's psychological theory of recognition-by-components to argue that the depiction of volumetric forms depends on the depiction of the vertices of such objects, as well as that of linear perspective. From this the chapter argues that the notion of informativeness, as developed by Lopes, should be combined with a notion of resemblance to create a more complete theory.
Chapter 3 examines a third component of depiction, namely that pictures can include, omit, and distort the features of their subjects. The psychological theory of scales, as developed by Oliva and Schyns, is used to explain certain kinds of depictions of fabrics, and the perception of Pointillist paintings. The chapter also examines the issue of to what extent perception and depiction are dependent on culture rather than genetics, and shows how a combination of scientific methodology, in the form of cross-cultural psychology, and historiography, in the form of Baxandall's 'period eye' approach, can be used to investigate this issue.
Chapter 4 examines a fourth component of depiction, namely the organisation of pictures. It uses studies by Westphal-Fitch et al., and Võ and Wolfe to analyse the patterns of Waldalgesheim art, and the images in the Book of Kells.
By using the science of visual perception, I arrive at the conclusion that a combination of theories of recognition, informativeness, and order, developed in Chapters 1, 2, and 4, together with theories of visual decomposition, processing, and recomposition, developed in Chapter 3, form a basis for understanding depiction.
Moser, S. (2017). Digitally Interactive Works and Video Games: A Philosophical Exploration.
This dissertation explores the philosophy of digitally interactive works and video games. There are two central questions to this thesis, namely, what is distinctive about computer art, and more specifically, what is distinctive about the interactivity that these kinds of works afford? The latter question is a response to the former, but, as I will articulate in the chapters that follow, this distinctive type of interactivity is not restricted to works that are comprised of digital media. As it turns out, games (especially video games) are paradigmatic examples and so both analytic aesthetics and game theory are relevant to a discussion of interactivity.
In what follows, I address topics that pertain to interactivity such as art categories, prescriptions, appreciation, and ontology. This thesis will show that interactive works consist of unique displays and prescriptions and are, therefore, a distinctive category of art. I conclude that interactive works do not belong in a performance ontology, that the prescriptions of interactive art bear player engagement, and, importantly, the distinctive features of digitally interactive works hinge on an algorithmic ontology.
Walker, M. (2017). Object-Images: The Exposed Paintings of Callum Innes and the Phenomenology of Non Representational Painting.
This thesis seeks to explore the notion of non-representation in painting and consider our
experience of such paintings in phenomenological terms. It is centred around an analysis of the
Exposed Paintings by Callum Innes, made from 1993 to date, and employs the term object-image to
examine how such paintings make a viewer aware of their material actuality or corporeality. It
considers object-images in relation to the theory and practice of American art in the middle of the
twentieth century as well as British painting and sculpture of recent decades. The main section of
the thesis draws upon the writing of Maurice Merleau-Ponty to ask questions of our perceptual
experience of non-representational paintings especially in relation to the idea of the reciprocity of
viewer and viewed.
Windsor, M. (2016). What Is the Uncanny? A Philosophical Enquiry.
From Edgar Allan Poe's macabre tales of mystery, to David Lynch's nightmarish visions of American suburbia, to Rachel Whitread's haunting casts of interior spaces, the uncanny represents a significant aspect of art and culture. Following Freud's famous essay on the topic, the uncanny is typically characterised as an unsettling ambivalence between the familiar and the unfamiliar. But beyond this broad characterisation, it seems that no one is able to say exactly what the uncanny is. This thesis aims to plug this gap by offering an original account of the uncanny. While I reject Freud's theory of the uncanny in terms of the 'return of the repressed', I develop aspects of Freud's more often overlooked theory of 'surmounted primitive beliefs'. I use philosophy of emotion to provide a framework for defining the uncanny-specifying the way that an object is experienced by the individual such that it elicits the emotion of uncanniness. What all uncanny phenomena share in common is that they are incongruous relative to what is believed to be possible: waxwork figures appear to be both animate and inanimate; doppelgangers and twins appear to be the same individual; strange coincidences appear to not merely be coincidences. This incongruity causes an uncertain threat to one's grasp of reality. I define the uncanny as an anxious uncertainty about what is real caused by an apparent impossibility. I elaborate the definition by examining in detail each of the four key concepts that comprise it: reality, impossibility, uncertainty, and anxiety. I discuss fictional cases where the object is not experienced as real, but rather fictionally experienced as real. I discuss two subsets of uncanny phenomena, which I call 'uncanny narratives' and 'uncanny pictures'. And finally, by way of conclusion, I offer some brief remarks on the 'paradox of the uncanny'- the question of why, when the uncanny is essentially a negative emotion, it is also something that we often find attractive.