Beyond Beauty: The Weird and the Wonderful in Art Practice and Theory

Often the works of art that we find most valuable and interesting we find troubling, threatening, disgusting, awe-inspiring (even creepy) and weird. This course will examine four such emotional responses to art 'beyond beauty': the sublime, the uncanny, disgust, and wonder.

Dates: 20, 27 June; 4, 11 July

Wednesdays: 11.00 – 13.00

Course code: 17TON346

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As theorised by Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century, the sublime is a response to objects in the world which are threatening and overwhelming, such as vast mountain ranges, volcanoes, and raging seas. The sublime of nature was central to the project of Romanticism; while into the twentieth and twenty-first century, technology and industry have created new forms of sublime experience.

Since Freud published his now famous essay on the topic, 'the uncanny' has become a popular trope in art criticism and theory. Many contemporary artist and filmmakers have been interested in evoking the eerie, creepy, shuddery feeling of the uncanny in their work—from Ron Mueck's hyperrealist polychrome sculptures, to 'paraconceptual' artist Susan Hiller's multimedia installations, to David Lynch's nightmarish visions of American suburbia.

Traditionally disgust has been considered to be improper to art. More recently, the philosopher Carolyn Korsmeyer has made a positive case for disgust in the context of aesthetic appreciation—that even this 'base', visceral emotion can afford complex and valuable insights into important aspects of what it means to be human.

We all experience the emotion of wonder—be it in response to the natural world, scientific discoveries, sacred objects, ancient artefacts, or modern and contemporary works of art, such as Rothko's paintings and James Turrell's light installations. Could it be, as one philosopher, Jesse Prinz, has recently suggested, that wonder is constitutive of all aesthetic appreciation? 

Course content

  • Smaller class group.
  • This course allows you to spend time exploring the subject in greater depth, among like-minded people.
  • You examine the role of emotions in aesthetic experience.
  • You explore a range of art practices from the eighteenth century to the present day.

You develop an understanding of traditional and contemporary theoretical approaches to art and aesthetics

  • Week 1: The Sublime
  • Week 2: The Uncanny
  • Week 3: Disgust
  • Week 4: Wonder

Suggested reading*

  • Week 1: Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford: OUP, 2008).
  • Week 2: Sigmund Freud, 'The "Uncanny"', in J. Strachey (ed.), The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. 17 (London: Vintage, 2001).
  • Week 3: Carolyn Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust (Oxford: OUP, 2011).
  • Week 4: Jesse Prinz, 'Emotion and Aesthetic Value', in E. Schellekens and P. Goldie (eds), The Aesthetic Mind (Oxford: OUP, 2011).

* These are not all readily accessible to non-students. The tutor will supply the relevant online links and other material during the course.

Course tutor

Dr Mark Windsor has a PhD in History and Philosophy of Art from the University of Kent and an MA in Art History from the University of Sussex. He has taught in the History of Art Department at Kent at BA and MA level, and in the Department of Philosophy at UCL. His research specialisms are in aesthetics, philosophy of art, and contemporary art history and theory.


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