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Ovi Symposium; Eighteenth Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2014-01-30 12:43:18
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Nannery, Paolozzi, Paparella and Vena
Eighteenth Meeting: 30 January 2014



Direct participants (in alphabetical order):

nannery01Dr. Lawrence Nannery has studied at Boston College, Columbia University and at The New School for Social Research where he obtained his Ph.D. He founded The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and authored The Esoteric Composition of Kafka’s Corpus. Devising Nihilistic Literature, 2 vols. Lewiston: the Edward Mellen Press, 2006.


enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


venaDr. Michael Vena is a former professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University. He has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism (with a dissertation on Leon Battista Alberti) from Yale University. He has published a book on Italian theater titled Italian Grotesque Theater (2001). Recently he has published an English collection of modern Italian plays by well known playwrights such as Pirandello, Fabbri and De Filippo.


Table of Content for the 18th Session of the Ovi Symposium (1/30/2014)
Main Sub-theme: “The Theater as a Bridge between Theory and Practice in Aesthetics”


Indirect Participants at this meeting within the “Great Conversation” across the Ages (in the order of their appearance in this session): Levinas, Aristotle, Chiarelli, Antonelli, Cavacchioli, Pirandello, D’annunzio, Duse, Wells, Barzini, Ibsen, Zacconi, Sammartano, Langa, Boutet, Garavaglia, Bracco, Antona-Traversi, Bonelli, Moselli, Martini, Prago, Lopez, Niccodemi, Klopp, Larkin, Bessanese, Mariani, Licastro, Fontanella, Antonucci, Farrel, Pupa, Van Watson, Scuderi, Mitchell, Maraini, Bontempelli, Rossi di San Secondo, Abba, Talli, Nietzsche, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Ruzante, Aretino, Goldoni, Gozzi, Metastasio, Cecchi, Di Maria, Alfieri, De Filippo, Svevo, Pasolini, Fabbri,  Fo, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Brecht, Plato, Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Rilke, Berdyaev, Manzoni, Gide, Blondel, Riviere, Peguy, Claudel, Bernanos, Mauriac, Le Roy, Gilson, Maritain, Mounier, Silone, Sansone, Sapegno, Gramsci, Lukacs, Sartre, De Sanctis, Husserl, Freud, Marx, Artaud, Rossellini, Visconti, Bergman, Popper, Greene, Plebe, Anceschi, Banfi, Croce, Tolstoy, Derrida, Collingwood, Barthes, Piper, Goodman, Benjamin, Danto, Korsmeyer, Bordieu, Jegede, Appiah, Davis, Kant, Hume, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Habermas, Hegel, Walton.

Preamble by way of an Abstractby the Symposium’s coordinator

Section 1:  “Theatrical Arts at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century.” A presentation by Michael Vena from the introduction to his book Italian Playwrights from the Twentieth Century (2013).

Section 2:  Annotated List of Four Recently Published Books, in English, on Italian Theater

Section 3: “Diego Fabbri’s Theater as the Trial of Western Civilization.” A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella.

Section 4: “Aporias of Italian Aesthetics after Croce.” A presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi (part one) as translated from his book Vicende dell’Estetica.

Section 5: By way of a dialogue with Paolozzi on the theme of his presentation: The concluding chapter from Paparella’s Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers: “The Nature ofArt as a Problematic of Aesthetics”

Section 6: A comment by Paolozzi on Paparella’s previous presentation on Heidegger and Habermas with a brief response by Paparella.


Preamble by way of an Abstract from the Symposium’s Coordinator

In the last session the Ovi team and family announced and welcomed aboard Dr. Michael Vena as a  regular contributor to the Ovi symposium. Vena debuts in section one of this 18th meeting with a presentation of the introduction to his latest book on Italian theater consisting of 14 essay, three of them his own, by various eminent scholars of the modern Italian theater (see section two for a list of titles and authors). As he himself has written, this decades-long project is not a mere academic endeavor; it is rather a work in progress to share his passion for the theater. It is also an intellectual exploration of the problematic of the dialectical nexus life/theater, theater/life.

Take notice that although the focus and sub-theme in this meeting is on the Italian theater, a section of Italian culture which unfortunately has remained uncultivated in the Anglo-Saxon cultural world, the general framework of the symposium remains that of aesthetics which can indeed be traced back to Aristotle’s Poetics as philosophy of theater, as the same Vena reminds us.

A further sub-theme continues to be that of truth/freedom vis a vis theory/practice in modern theories of aesthetics responding to the question “Is philosophy a theoretical rather than an existential practice?” The theater could well be considered a sort of bridge between theory and practice as indeed Aristotle teaches us. This vital theme is further explored by Paolozzi via a comment in section five which deals with a topic introduced in the last two meetings of the symposium in the process of analyzing Heidegger’s philosophy and Habermas’ reaction to it, a theme which will undoubtedly continue to be explored in future sessions.

In section two the reader is presented with an extensively annotated list of five recently published books on Italian theater for English readers. Two of those books are by Michael Vena: Italian Grotesque Theater 2001, and Italian Playwrights of the Twentieth Century (2013) followed by a table of content listing the 14 essays’ authors’ essay and their academic affiliation. The third book is by Joseph Farrell and Paolo Puppa titled A History of Italian Theater (2006), and the fourth and fifth are by Professor Salvatore Di Maria of the University of Tennessee and titled Tragedy in the Italian Renaissance (2002), and The Poetics of Imitation in the Italian Theater of the Renaissance (2013). These five books should go a long way in familiarizing non-experts who don’t read Italian with the astounding production of modern Italian Theater that has thrived since the Renaissance.

In section three Paparella offers a brief but focused portrait of one of the most famous of modern Italian playwright: Diego Fabbri who in the sixties and seventies was as well known as Luigi Pirandello but has now fallen into an undeserved obscurity. This is a very unfortunate situation and the cultural reasons that gave rise to it after World War II is masterfully recounted by Ernesto Paolozzi in section four. Indeed, Fabbri’s opus (especially his play Jesus on Trial which has been translated and included in one of Vena’s books and is briefly examined in the presentation) remains very relevant to modern concerns and can be interpreted as a sort of trial of the whole of Western Civilization, not too dissimilar from the trial of Western thought and ethical norms conducted by Emmanuel Levinas in his philosophy. Paparella’s presentation which has previously been published in the magazine is titled “Diego Fabbri’s Theater as the Trial of Western Civilization.”

In section four Ernesto Paolozzi presents us with an enlightening excursus on the issue of the definition of art as part one from the appendix to his book Vicende dell’Estetica titled “Aporie dell’Estetica Italiana dopo Croce.” The second part is to be presented in the next session. Here Paolozzi explores the cultural climate of Italy after the fall of fascism and attempts to supply some valid philosophical answers as to why the influence of Croce and other notable authors grew suddenly weaker after World War II while at the same time exploring the vexing issue of the definition of art.

In section five, by way of a dialogue and exchange of ideas within Paolozzi’s presentation on the theme of the definition of art in aesthetics, Paparella once again places on the symposium’s table the last chapter of his Ovi e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers (2013) which deals with an identical theme.

Finally in section six, the dialogue on the conundrum theory/praxis within general philosophy and particularly on Heidegger’s philosophy and Habermas’ reflections on it continues with a comment by Paolozzi on Paparella’s last presentation on Heidegger-Habermas followed by a brief response from Paparella.




Theatrical Arts at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
A Presentation by Michael Vena
(from the introduction to his recent book Italian Playwrights of the 20th Century)

Preface by Michael Vena: I’d like to take the opportunity of my debut, so to speak, at the Ovi Magazine Symposium to thank both my good friend and colleague Emanuel L. Paparella and the editor in chief of the magazine Thanos Kalamidas for their cordial invitation to join the distinguished panel of contributors to the Ovi symposium. I have been reading with great interest and much enjoying the Ovi symposium lately. Being now part of its team, I trust my presentations, aiming at the sharing of my decades-long project of translation and popularization of major Italian playwrights, will in some measure enhance the readers’ interest in this field of aesthetics. Reflections on the theater and life go all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics in Western culture. Mine will be a modest contribution but I look forward to a flourishing collaboration and a productive dialogue in the field of aesthetics and particularly on the modern Italian theater about which, beyond academic considerations, I remain passionate.


In an introduction to his book The Italians, Luigi Barzini quotes Orson Wells as having observed that Italy is a nation blessed with actors, sixty million of them, “in fact, they are almost all good; there are only a few bad ones, and they are all on the stage and in the films.” The author goes in detail regarding their mimic, gestures, use of hands to emphasize, clarify or suggest what is spoken or what is not prudent to express in words. Sooner or later, the world around would become well aware of Italians’ long tradition and love for the theater that goes way back to Etruscan theater over the entire peninsula, even in small towns and islands: from a religious as well as secular medieval period, plays staged in renaissance and baroque grandeur, lessons in comedy, pastoral and epic drama; commedia dell’arte melodrama, indeed the splendors nineteenth century opera. Such traditions, enjoyed by most Europeans over the course of time, induced at the turn of the new century a number of countries to invest in local theaters as stable centers of learning, with the appointments of a stage director and related personnel. While the Italian theatrical establishment could not rely at first on government support, nonetheless great actors and actresses thrived locally (from public squares to local churches) and on world stages, keeping faith with a reputation acquired from their accomplishments as the ones from commedia dell’arte and in opera productions.


Ancient Etruscan Theater in Volterra, Tuscany, Italy

At the dawn of the twentieth century, a notable of such success is Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) whose powerful voice both in popular and classical repertoire transformed musicals (Cavelleria Rusticana), bourgeois theater (La moglie ideale), and European culture (Ibsen’s theatrical repertoire, and other European productions) into immortal masterpieces. Duse would travel far and wide to perform, wetting the public’s appetite for artistic beauty that had been partly inspired by admiration for her companion, Gabriele D’Annunzio, the write who sparked a renewal of interest in modern stage both in Italy and Europe. Duse’s male counterpart was often Ermete Zacconi (1857-1948), a charismatic actor who attracted young generations both as an actor and as stage director. As theoretician and polemicist, Zacconi defended the proposed role of director for the modern stage, a position that was limited to acting but related to responsibilities for the entire performance. It should also be noted that both Duse and Zacconi spent much of their professional lives as part of a traveling troupe, like those sixteenth century members of the commedia dell’arte and unlike many of their European counterparts who had become salaried actors in residence for a performing company, Duse eventually died in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, ending a long and Remarkable career that had taken her all over Italy, to much of Latin America and throughout the United States. Both Duse and Zacconi left a legacy for younger generations in the field of theory, acting, and all the sundry aspects of stagecraft.


Eleonora Duse (1858-1924)

In Italy the dream for a “Teatro Stabile” would be delayed for several years, yet such decision did not mean that actors and other professionals would give up on the idea of a permanent performing centers where actors could be trained and stage directors would not have to improvise. Soon permanent theaters (Teatro Stabile) and small theaters (Piccolo Teatro) would become realities in many Italian cities starting with Rome, (not to mention the many theaters and amphitheaters sparse throughout the peninsula, still functional and going back some twenty-seven centuries). A first attempt had been made in 1898 by a critic, Domenico Lanza (1858-1949), to form a “teatro d’arte” (Classic Theater) in Turin. It was short-lived. A more serious effort was then made in Rome by another art critic, Edoardo Bouted (1856-1915).


Ermete Zacconi (1857-1948)

He managed to obtain support for the now venerable Teatro Argentina from the local administration at City Hall, who first had to be convinced by notable city elders and intellectuals to organize such a sought-after “Stabile Romana.” The new company proposed Ferruccio Garavaglia (1868-1912) for a leading role and later as coordinator for an elite group who would seek to lure back actors in their role as interpreters of an artistic repertoire, now staged however, with modern approaches. This new company lasted for about fifteen years up to 1913, having introduced a number of foreign authors along with new works by local and well established playwrights (such as D’Annunzio, Bracco, Antona-Traversi), and several of the most talented newcomers (Benelli, Moselli, Martini, et al.).


Italian Playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936)
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934

Although the “Stabile Romana” terminated its programs in 1913, soon real progress was made at the organizational level of the theatrical enterprise in Italy by leaders like Marco Praga, Sabatino Lopez, Dario Niccodemi, three well known and respected playwrights who became instrumental in the reorganization of the Italian Society of Authors. They followed through with a proposal advanced by its former president Marco Praga, that the authors join with the Actors’ Guild and the Theater Directors’ Association to form a single unit.


Italian Playwright Dario Fo (1926-2013)
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997


Improv theater or Commedia dell’Arte in Italy

The newly formed Copyright Office, known as Società Italiana Autori Editori (SIAE), became a central unifying force in dealing with the various and sundry aspects of artistic performance; in resolving typical economic and professional conflicts between actor, director, and author; or by attending to problems of registration, protection, grants of copyright, remittance, and so on… Such streamlining of the theatrical enterprise as a whole coincided with, and certainly enhanced, that “magic” moment in Italian theater that produced several of the best playwrights of the early twentieth century, great actresses and actors such as Eleonora Duse, and Marta Abba, directors like Ermere Zacconi and Virgilio Talli, as well as Luigi Pirandello, the latter being already well known as a novelist as well as for his theoretical treatise On Humor, and was just getting ready to start an extensive production of theatrical masterpieces.  


Interior of La Scala Opera House in Milan



Annotated Notes on Three Recently Published Books in English on the Italian Theater


Italian Grotesque Theater by Michael Vena (2001)

This is the first book in English to explore Italian “grotesque” theater in the twentieth century. Chiarelli’s “The Mask and the Face” Antonelli’s “A Man Confronts Himself”, and Cavacchioli’s “The Bird of Paradise” have been widely staged in Europe and the Americas by prominent directors, including Pirandello. These playwrights exercised a pivotal role in stage renewal, forged links with the most avant-garde contemporary thinking, and, some of them at least, set the pace for what became, much later, “theater of the absurd.”

The Theatre of the Grotesque, a dramatic movement in Italy from 1916 until 1930, grew directly out of Pirandello’s concept of “umorismo,” the painful laugh accompanying the tragic sense of bewilderment at the incongruities and cruelties of life. Growing first of all from a reaction against positivism and its theatrical counterpart, naturalism, the Theatre of the Grotesque was also an extension of the Crepuscular movement in poetry. Three syndromes which enter grotesque plays in various combinations are aptly expressed in the titles of three of the grotesques: for the marionette syndrome, Rosso di San Secondo’s “Oh Marionettes, What Passion!”; for the mirror syndrome, Luigi Antonelli’s “The Man Who Met Himself”; and for the multiple reality syndrome, Luigi Pirandello’s “Right You Are (If You Think You Are).” These Pirandellian syndromes have continued and have been enriched in the absurdist and existentialist drama which followed the Theatre of the Grotesque.


Italian Playwrights from the Twentieth Century:
A Companion Text edited and introduced by Michael Vena (2013)

The above presentation in section one by Michael Vena already furnishes the reader with an idea of what this book deals with. To further enhance that idea we post the table of content of the book with the titles of its 14 essays by various scholars of Italian theater, their names and their academic affiliation:

1. Life as Theater: Gabriele D’Annunzio by Charles Klopp (Professor of Italian and Director of Graduate Studies at the Ohio State University)

2. The Pleasure of Being Booed: Futurist Performances from 1910-33 by Erin Larkin (Assistant Professor of Italian at Southern Connecticut State University)

3. Mad Reflections in Early Pirandellian Drama by Flora Bessanese (Professor of Italian at the University of Massachusetts-Boston)

4. Six Characters in Search of an Author: An Interpretive Key by Umberto Mariani (Professor Emeritus of Italian at Rutger University)

5. Luigi Antonelli’s Theater: A Grotesque in “Fantastic Humor” by Michael Vena (Professor Emeritus of Italian at Southern Connecticut State University)

6. P.M. Rosso di San Secondo’s Major Plays by Emanuele Licastro (Professor of Italian at the State University of New York at Buffalo)

7. Enrico Cavacchioli and Metatheater by Michael Vena

8. The Theater of Massimo Bontempelli by Luigi Fontanella (Professor of Italian at the State University of New York, Stony Brook)

9. Ugo Betti’s Major Plays by Emanuele Licastro

10. The Major Theater of Diego Fabbri by Umberto Mariani

11. Guide to the Plays of Eduardo De Filippo by Giovanni Antonucci (Professor of History of Theater at the University of Rome)

12. Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Theater of the Word by William Van Watson (Associate Professor of Italian at the University of Arizona)

13. Dario Fo’s Ancient Roots and Epic Performances by Antonio Scuderi (Professor of Italian at Truman State University, Missouri)

14. Scrittura Feminile: Writing the Female Plays of Dacia Maraini by Tony Mitchell (Senior Lecturer in cultural studies and popular music at the University of Technology, Sidney, Australia)


A History of Italian Theater (2006)
by Joseph Farrell and Paolo Puppa

With the aim of providing a comprehensive history of Italian drama from its origins to the time of its publication in 2006, this book treats theatre in its widest sense, discussing the impact of all the elements and figures integral to the collaborative process of theatre-making. The impact of designers, actors, directors and impresarios as well as of playwrights is subjected to critical scrutiny, while individual chapters examine the changes in technology and shifts in the cultural climate which have influenced theatre.

No other approach would be acceptable for Italian theatre, where from the days of commedia dell’arte, the central figure has often been the actor rather than the playwright. The important writers, such as Carlo Goldoni and Luigi Pirandello, receive detailed critical treatment, as do the ‘great actors’ of nineteenth-century theatre or the directors of our own time, but the focus is always on the bigger picture.


The Poetics of Imitation in the Italian Theater of the Renaissance (2013)
by Salvatore Di Maria

The theatre of the Italian Renaissance was directly inspired by the classical stage of Greece and Rome, and many have argued that the former imitated the latter without developing a new theatre tradition. In this book, Salvatore DiMaria investigates aspects of innovation that made Italian Renaissance stage a modern, original theatre in its own right. He provides important evidence for creative imitation at work by comparing sources and imitations – incuding Machiavelli’s Mandragola and Clizia, Cecchi’s Assiuolo, Groto’s Emilia, and Dolce’s Marianna – and highlighting source elements that these playwrights chose to adopt, modify, or omit entirely.


The Italian Tragedy in the Renaissance (2002)
by Salvatore Di Maria


Professor Salvatore Di Maria

Di Maria delves into how playwrights not only brought inventive new dramaturgical methods to the genre, but also incorporated significant aspects of the morals and aesthetic preferences familiar to contemporary spectators into their works. By proposing the theatre of the Italian Renaissance as a poetic window into the living realities of sixteenth-century Italy, he provides a fresh approach to reading the works of this period.



Diego Fabbri’s Theater as “The Trial of Western Civilization”
A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella



Abstract: Diego Fabbri’s existential theater, passionately committed to the exploration of the human condition and the spirit of the age, is all but forgotten nowadays. That is unfortunate, for the theatrical production of Diego Fabbri (especially his summa: “Jesus on Trial”) is still vitally relevant to post-modern Man’s self-knowledge, and the rediscovery of the cultural identity of Western civilization.


Diego Fabbri (1911-1980)

As part of Dr. Vena’s translation project, a few years ago I translated from the Italian into English a play by Diego Fabbri titled Processo a Gesù [Jesus on Trial]. This is perhaps his best known work, originally performed in Milan on March 2, 1955. It might be hard to believe it, but in the 50s and 60s Fabbri became better known than Pirandello, not only in Italy but also abroad. At that time his above mentioned play was performed in Germany, Sweden, Austria, the USA, France, England, Spain, Australia, even Japan; it was eventually made into a movie in Spain. Despite this early popularity Fabbri seems to have been all but forgotten. That is too bad, for he is even more relevant now to the predicaments of Western Civilization than he was fifty years ago.


Between Two Thieves by Warner Le Roy
Adapted from Fabbri’s Processo a Gesù

Fabbri is one of those rare dramatists who, like Pirandello, is concerned with philosophical-ethical issues relating to the existential human condition. Some of his other plays are The Seducer, The Liar, Inquisition and Portrait of an Unknown. The mere titles of these plays hint at Fabbri’s existential concerns. He was the kind of author who in Italian goes under the name of “impegnato” [committed].


Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936)

The classical authors who greatly influenced Fabbri, as he himself revealed in his book of essays titled Christian Ambiguity (1954), are Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Plato, St. Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Rilke, Berdiaev, Manzoni, as well as the contemporary French authors he was reading at the time the play made its debut: Andre Gide, Maurice Blondel, Jacques Riviere, Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, Julien Green, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier. Enough to persuade anybody that Fabbri is not an esoteric elitist intellectual, (of either classical or modern tradition); on the contrary, he speaks the language of everyman and is concerned with the problems of everyman.


Diego Fabbri’s Play The Trial of Jesus,
first staged in Milan in 1955

The protagonists of his drama are mostly ordinary people who struggle with the great issues, “prosecuting charges,” indictments, and ultimate problems of the human condition and destiny as lived today by post-modern Man who the more he distances himself from God, the more he feels Her/His absence, the more he searches for Her/Him through the labyrinthine byways of the spirit. In this respect, Jesus on Trial can be considered Fabbri’s Summa.

And what is this play all about? It is really a modern trial, an in absentia trial of Jesus and to a certain extent of the ancient Jewish people by modern Jews. Paradoxically, as the trial progresses, we come to realize that it is in reality the trial of a decadent technological rationalistic civilization against itself; that is to say, the trial of a civilization that has lost the ability to hope in the future and to conceive salvation and redemption of any kind, a civilization stuck in the horizontal (the immanent) and devoid of the vertical (the transcendent) and unable to conceive the two together dialectically as “both-and,” often given to apocalyptic scenarios of its own future destiny. To be sure, the play had that powerful effect on me personally as I translated it.

Behind this bleak assessment by Fabbri of the modern social phenomenon, there is Charles Péguy, an author who influenced Fabbri more than any other, and who had written that “Christianity is a life lived together so that we may save ourselves together.” After reading the play one realizes that indeed while Pirandello is Fabbri’s artistic inspiration, Charles Péguy is Fabbri’s spiritual inspiration for the conception of an authentic Christian society: a society that finds its “raison d’etre” in communion and solidarity and is thus alone able to free Man from that deep solitude of spirit described by Vico as “the barbarism of the intellect” and afflicting post-modern Man in the third rationalistic cycle of Vico’s ideal eternal history.


Charles Péguy (1873-1914), a great influence on Fabbri

As far as dramatic techniques are concerned Pirandello is undoubtedly present, behind the curtain, so to speak. He is there for the fundamental emotions and conflicts which are explored, for the conception of dialogue as a search for identity and truth, and for the stage returned to its original classical function of authentic place of drama, almost another protagonist. It was in fact this Pirandellian inspiration and conception of the drama as advertised by Fabbri that led to the rediscovery of Pirandello in Italy and abroad.


Federico Fellini (1920-1993)

Fabbri’s theater flows naturally into film. In the 60s and 70s he wrote manuscripts for the RAI Television which includes, among others, novels by Silone’s among which Il Segreto di Luca, Greene’s The End of the Affair, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov and The Devils. However, Fabbri is no Dostoevsky, he remains uniquely himself hard to subsume under any other director. If one were to search for a kindred spirit to Fabbri among modern film directors, it would not be Fellini of Satyricon, but Bergman of The Seventh Seal.


A powerfully dramatic scene from The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman (1957)


Poster for the movie version of Processo a Gesù (1974)



Aporias of Italian Aesthetics after Croce—Part I
A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi

Note: This essay here translated into English by Emanuel L. Paparella was originally published in the journal Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia of the University of Naples, vol. XXVI, year XIV; later it appeared in Paolozzi’s book Vicende dell’Estetica (1989).

If we survey the textbooks of the history of Italian literature which appeared between the years 1965 and 1975, we can capture with some kind of precision the cultural climate of those years, perhaps even better than by reading volumes and essays dedicated to single authors or specific problems. This is so because summaries, even when they retain the ideological and philosophical orientation of their authors, tend to present themselves as a popularizing organ of the official culture which, in the case of the then Italy, could be better measured with the ruler of quantity than that of quality. Similarly, those of us who’d like to get a general idea of what happened to Italian aesthetics and the literary criticism after World War II, could easily satisfy their curiosity by reading the chapter dedicated to Croce by Mario Sansone in his successful History of Italian Literature where he writes that “Generally speaking Croce lifted the whole of Italian culture to the highest European level, inserted in it with a vigilant intellectualism which knew no pause or tiredness, all the international phenomena which were most alive at the time, not only accepting it but also placing it under a rigorous critical test: thus creating a work which not only elevated culturally but also in an ethical and civil mode.”


Storia della Letteratura Italiana by Mario Sansone (1900-1998)

However, concluding the same essay Sansone notes that Croce’s influence which had lasted a good sixty years, weakens after World War II when “new problems and new cultural paths arose.”

The judgment of another historian of literature, Natalino Sapegno, is even more severe and explicit. In his Compendio di storia della letteratura of 1972 he writes that “Today, against the admirable heritage of Croce, in certain aspects sterile and even dangerous, and even more against the banal formulism of the orthodox Croceans, there is a tendency to go back to the thread of our romantic critic-literary tradition anchored in the example of De Sanctis. Not by chance, in the recent past all of the more astute critics with a strong personality, be it in the field of militant criticism or in the academic field, we have all operated, more or less, outside of the field of orthodox Croceanism, even when we have felt in various ways the influence of Croce.”

But exactly what were the new problems and the new destinations which were evident at the end of the 50s? And who were “the most astute critics with a strong personality” who refused Crocean orthodoxy? The summaries don’t reveal the answer to this question.      


Natalino Sapegno (1901-1990)

And yet we must answer such a question if we wish to understand the real import of certain movements and the theoretical resistance of competitive doctrines; in short if we wish to see clearly to fill in a legitimate if rather sterile historical curiosity, but above all so that we can operate and construct a small contribution to to the current cultural debate. So, what was the road that Italian culture had begun to travel upon after the fall of Fascism? Those who identify the return of Marxism as one of the characteristic signs of those years, would not be wrong: the discovery of Gramsci and Lukacs; the renewed popularity of Lenin, Tockij and Stalin, whose concepts were utilized even in the field of aesthetics, were fundamental elements of the cultural debate of that time. But those who on the other hand see those signs in the return to the enlightenment and positivism would not be wrong either: psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology, structuralism, return or come to the fore for the first time intriguing even the mass of the people. Neither would be wrong those who retain irrationalism, especially decadent irrationalism the only valid aesthetics to affix to that historical period: phenomenological existentialism and Christian existentialism (with the exception of the committed existentialism of Sartrian orientation) were mixed to the most varied avanguard poetics, while Satre, as mentioned, favored Marxism.


Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)
Marxist author of Letteratura e Vita Nazionale

So, next to Lukacs there is Husserl, next to Freud there is Marx, Brecht was also distinguished but more often than not he was placed next to Artaud; the realism of Rossellini was mixed with the decadentism of Visconti, while the existentialism of Bergman was contrasted with the hyper-realism of protest movies of the leftist avanguard.

While the neo-positivist philosopher of the Vienna Circle aroused interest, there were also those of the Frankfurt school; and if in the figurative arts expressionism or dada triumphed, there were those who vaunted and promulgated the paintings of socialist realism.


Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977)

Anybody can fill pages and pages of those oppositions or false oppositions. And the result of such work would be that of finding oneself confronting an historical period extremely contradictory and agitated, as never before, hard to define even with a vast and vague brush. It would be so were it not for that contradictoriness and agitation defining the times we are discussing.


Luchino Visconti (1906-1976)

In fact, they were years of revolt and rebellion against the whole European cultural tradition. It contrasted after all with all the triumphant of the first half of the century and guaranteed its success; and that probably explains why so many absurd hybridisms were created in those years. Obviously what happened in politics was reflected in what happened in culture and vice-versa. Once Fascism fell, it seemed that with it the other institutions, customs and laws of the preceding era needed to fall also.

But as it often happens and as attentive men had predicted we did not return to the old world, neither did we completely detach ourselves from it; instead, at least on the political level the old liberal institutions resurrected to a new life reinvigorated by a new vital lymph. We could say that in those years and precisely from the end of the 70s an analogous process is happening at the cultural level: the long blizzard of rebellion having exhausted itself, the discussion returns to concrete problems, to clear and definitive philosophical problems. Paradoxically, in our opinion, it was in those years of republican democracy Italian politics (and we are conscious here of pronouncing a judgment that may appear paradoxical or at any rate painful) found itself ahead of the culture, and beyond contingent crisis, the inspirational foundational criteria of our democracy, which are after all the principles which inspire the most progressive nations, only now have caught up with the official Italian culture.


Georg Lukács (1885-1971)

If this, as we believe, is the total movement of Italian culture and civilization even in the field of aesthetics the issue can be taken on in analogous terms and even with all the limitations such an operation requires, we can hazard and theorize a periodization which could result useful for those who study this period. In the 50s we have assisted to the crisis of Crocean aesthetics, a crisis which in some way resulted as fertile ground because in those years even if the tendency was that of leaving Croce behind, his theories were placed on the table for discussion so that even his adversaries were contaminated by them. In the 60s till the middle of the 70s, with rare exceptions, Croce’s criticism became open hostility or ostentatious indifference. From 75 to the end of the 80s we notice a general re-thinking so that those phenomena which traversed the whole of Italian culture, are now balkanized in small “schools” and many ask themselves if there is a necessity of re-evaluating concepts and schemas, judgments and behavior.


Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

In this brief essay we have attempted to fill with concrete analysis, even if not in a wholly thorough mode, the empty generalizations we have examined. Hence we have deepened some themes we consider relevant, particularly relevant in the years we have examined and still today challenging the scholars of aesthetics and others too.


Croce whose influence began to decline after World War II

If the cultural climate between 1950 to 1970 has been understood, it ought not be difficult to understand why among the fundamental problems, rather the problem of all problems, that of the legitimacy of aesthetics has taken on great importance. Overall this thematic is only a particular case of the general crisis of philosophy in the first twenty years after the war and by now, in our opinion partly overcome.

It is not easy to capture the sense of an era, neither is it guaranteed that this sense or “essence” as some like to refer to it, can be is comprehensible. However, it is a fact that some delineations can be written and upheld by an objective documentation in as much as that is possible in human affairs. There is no doubt, in fact, that from the empiricist point of view, contemporary aesthetics is insufficient to explain art, given that even the concept of art must be verifiable explained and upheld by experience. Quite often, following a line of reasoning which confuses art as content, that is to say the changing nature and the original creativity of every single artistic creation, with the form or in other words with the concept which such changing nature and creativity want to understand and explain; often the possibility of arriving at a precise theory which could rigorously define the poetical, thus relegating aesthetics at the outskirts of metaphysics the modern of language, grown up under the shadow of the Vienna Circle abhorred, not misguidedly but with an excessive zeal, what did not correspond to the concrete individuality of the single and diverse thinkers which they rigorously criticized.


Bertold Brecht (1898-1956)

But the central theorem of contemporary neo-empiricism finds itself in a crisis, and not only under the barrage of philosophers with a different viewpoint, but because of an internal crisis, given that scholars such as Popper have caught their insufficient theoretical weakness. In very general terms we have asked if the proposition “every judgment must be verified” is not itself a judgment which cannot be verified which in effect contradicts itself and the whole empiricist mind-set.

We have already discussed the confusion between art as creation and philosophical judgment on art; but on the other hand in the field of aesthetics if we exclude Armando Plebe’s book Aesthetics on Trial, we cannot say that neo-empiricism has exercised much influence on Italian scholars.

Without any doubt sociologism, psycologism, neo-marxism and structuralism have had more success; they can certainly be inserted in the vast horizon of empiricism, even when they don’t directly invoke it, or, as in the case of Marxism, they condemn it. For our discussion is in any case necessary to remember that what all those movements have in common is an anti-philosophical vocation and therefore as such anti-aesthetics. Both Marxism and psychoanalysis deny the possibility of a philosophical aesthetics since they also deny the autonomy of art and make it “relative” placing it in a mechanical relationship with “causes” which are extraneous to art such as the economy and the subconscious. Sociology and structuralism operate independent from any philosophical evaluation of the concept of art and from any critical judgment on taste. The former, similar to Marxism, utilizing art merely as an historical document, the latter elaborating linguistic analysis and constructing assumed empirical laws on language with a method which is similar to that of psychoanalysis. And in the end from an aesthetic point of view there is nothing to grasp. It is up to philosophy in general to establish the validity of such methods. The problem arises with those scholars who, in order to justify their historical-political approach feel that they need to deny the possibility of an aesthetics which identifies art as an autonomous expression of the life of man.

But even those movements, whose theoretical weaknesses are rather obvious, after a few years of great popularity have lost their initial energy and seem to have left little if any signs within contemporary Italian culture. We are here interested in analyzing above all the position of those who have meant to criticize not so much philosophical aesthetics but a certain “idea” of philosophical aesthetics, to then come face to face with the same difficulties, albeit not in such evident manner, encountered by the empiricists.

These various thinkers, by their own admission, do not deny the possibility of aesthetics, but they do deny the possibility that any aesthetic theory could present itself as absolute and definitive. In fact they do not deny that one can define art, but they do deny that such a definition could be valid once and for all for any artistic form. They conjecture that an aesthetics could be valid for a certain epoch, another could be valid for a definite group of artistic works, or that the duty of philosophers of aesthetics is exclusively that of searching for the relations which may eventually exist within what we could define the art-world in general: works of art, poetics, aesthetics, and so on.

So let’s take a look via the analysis of a few excerpts from Luciano Anceschi who happens to be the most famous of the defenders of this line of thought, to grasp the very essence of this position and the aporias which exist in it.

For our author, the protests which some artists and some philosophers carry out against philosophical aesthetics are justified because they move against essentialist aesthetics, which are supposedly responsible for a certain kind of oppression of art’s freedom in as much as they assume a “pragmatic turn” which ends up imposing laws and rules to the spontaneous creativity of artists. These protests, according to Anceschi, would lose their justification if they turned to a new and correct mode of conceiving philosophical aesthetics.

Poetics as well as essentialist aesthetics, even if with different emphasis and different intentions, tend to give a definitive and absolute answer to the question: “What is art?” An essentialist answer cannot satisfy the concrete and varied artistic experience. How can we possibly arrive at a philosophical that even if it remains such does not appear with the character of definiteness and devoid of pragmatic turns? Anceschi’s answer is that it is possible by utilizing the notions of integration and of the horizon of understanding which are like the skeleton of the phenomenological world as outlined in Banfi’s interpretation and that of his school. In a page where Anceschi proposed his own solution (found in his essay titled For a philosophical aesthetics of art) we read this: “So the fundamental question ‘What is art?’ can in the end be translated in this other question which excludes all essentialist answers: ‘According to what law can the life of art (works, precepts, ideals) be coordinated so that in being understood it does not undergo reductions of any kind? So to the question what we need to substitute the question how; and this is the phenomenological as we have understood it in this discussion… In any case, the fundamental sense of the problem remains this: that all the horizons of choice (be they partial or dogmatic) aspire, by their own internal tensions, to an integration within a horizon of understanding that connects them, places them in relation with each other, and can capture the general and common sense. Therefore the method will not be so much that of a system which means structures as much as that of the system which signifies itself through the structures.

Therefore Anceschi wishes to identify within the vast field of art (art works, precepts, aesthetics, etc.) laws of integration, which is to say, common moments that pertain to those varied experiences, common moments even in a dialectic sense as could be the opposition autonomy-heteronomy of art.

Obviously the exigencies of Anceschi must be fully accepted, were it not that his methodological set-up reveals certain aporias at the end of it all. Surely one can accept the attempt of preventing that the research on a work of art put limits on the concrete living of an artistic creation. But how can we find interrelations and common moments without having a pre-comprehension, so to speak, of what needs to be placed in relation? Is it possible to assert that there are objectively speaking some relations without there being also a subjective element which postulates and gathers them?


Luciano Anceschi (1911-1995)

In conclusion we could say that the how always presupposes the what. Which criterion should we adopt in choosing various practical and theoretical phenomena which we must then insert in our horizon of comprehension or integrative law? The risk, in reality inevitable, is that of falling in empiricism once again and through it into skepticism. We can then accept as artistic creation any foolishness that jumps to mind to any group of literati or painters. Will we have to accept within one’s horizon any lucubration that arises in the mind of beginners immature philosophers? Or should accept with a spirit less Cartesian and too historicist, everything that the authority of humanity hands on to us as art as philosophy of art?

Those questions arise spontaneously, just as the discomfort of Anceschi for those essentialist aesthetics is also comprehensible, for within the history of art they often have limited or have been a stumbling block to the life of art and its expression. But to go back to the essence of the Anceschi proposals, to be able to describe the various connections which may cross them, and that surely cross the various artistic movements among the various theories of art, it is necessary to have a notion of what is art. All other attempts are destined to failure and lately we have had the empirical proof (which in reality means historical proof) of what we are talking about. In fact, the dissemination of problematic similar to those raised by Anceschi and a superficial application of certain philosophical theories, have given birth in the artistic field to effects that are astonishing and which must be taken in consideration in the development of our discussion. We notice a poorly understood anti-dogmatic and anti-definitional spirit, the turning into a myth of the so called open system, the trivialization of certain aesthetic theories, which have undoubtedly contributed to aberrations such as that of the Venice Biannual Art Show where a mentally challenged man has been presented as a work of art.

But to return to our problem, we could ask, without irony or utilitarianism, what would be the usefulness of such a way of proceeding? Aside from giving us a  very useful description on the historical level, as in fact Anceschi descriptions of single authors or group of authors or the various artistic movements or the various theories of art, are; what else can we use of such a method? Here, to say it with the same Anceschi we need to decide in regard to philosophy. Philosophy arises from life and returns to life as one of its indispensable moments. And if we reflect about this, here we are with Anceschi discussing a thematic which the same authors has placed on the table: the implicit pragmatic turn of which the so called essentialist aesthetic theories are imbued with. Now, if this turn is implicit as the same Anceschi holds, and if it differentiates itself from the gathering of precepts in the sense, to say it with Croce, it orientates without determining, it is integral part of philosophy. It is not possible to operate a critique, a choice without a criterion and a definition. Even those who proclaim that they do not possess them, has them nevertheless and probably in a confused mode. If Anceschi had not considered valid the criterion of having to conduct an integrative research project on various poetics, on the aesthetics and so on, would he have operated in that sense? If many artists had not been convinced of the criterion that there is no criterion to define art, would they have operated, for better or for worst, the way they have operated?

End of Part I (part two will be published in the next session)




By Way of a Dialogue with Paolozzi on his Presentation:
The Concluding Chapter from Paparella’s Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers:

The Nature of Art as a Problematic of Aesthetics”


Ovi e-book: Aesthetic Theories of the Great Western Philosophers


Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom
An Ovi e-book by Ernesto Paolozzi (2013)

Introductory Note: In response to Paolozzi’s brilliant presentation on the definition of Art as a problematic of aesthetics, a theme he has been exploring all along within Crocean aesthetics in the symposium and in his Ovi e-book on Croce (Benedetto Croce: the Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom), and particularly in regard to the conundrum mentioned at the very end of his presentation (the paradox of establishing a criterion that proclaims that there are no criteria to define what art is), and by way of an ongoing dialogue within the symposium, I’d like to place on the table once more the concluding chapter of my Ovi e-book on Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers. The chapter dovetails Paolozzi’s presentation in as much as it attempts to show that the problem of the definition of art is a problem that can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle and remains an ongoing one. If anything it has only become more acute in contemporary times with the apparent rejection of Beauty as integral part of any concept of art.


Plato (427-347 BC) who began the reflections on the philosophy of art

By now the reader who has followed the sundry views and definitions of art by various philosophers and art experts as here presented is perhaps more aware of the eclectic, head-spinning nature of those views and may be wondering which are their guiding threads. As already pointed out, those postings are basically slightly revised classroom lectures on a course on aesthetics which I teach regularly at Barry University in Miami. I decided to take advantage of one of the technological wonders of our times (the on-line course) and share them with others. Perhaps it is now time to spell out some of those threads as a guide the reader and/or student. The first introductory item I usually place on the class discussion table is the indisputable historical fact that, beginning with Plato, and for more than two millennia, there has been in the West a dialectical philosophical dialogue on the nature of art. The dialogue is indeed spirited and ongoing. It begins with Plato’s discussion of the forms but continues with the implications of the digital revolution, as we have already amply seen.

The simple all encompassing question “What is the nature and the definition of Art” is accompanied throughout history by corollary questions such as: “Is art synonymous with beauty or does it encompass the ugly and the abhorrent also?” or “Is a literal definition even possible?” or “What makes something a work of art?” or “Do the artist’s intentions make it art?” or “Does the so called artworld make it art?” or “Are judgments about Art objective or are they simply a matter of taste?” or “Is one artistic or aesthetic judgment as good as another?” or closer to our times, this thorny question: “Is contemporary art still art or is it a mere instrument of ideological provocation and propaganda?” Some of those questions are in conflict with each other because they derive from different assumptions.

Moreover, the range of those questions is philosophically wide and deep and first rate Western philosophers have tried their mettle and attempted to answer them. Just to mention a few whose point of view we have already briefly explored in Ovi: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Freud, Collingwood, Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Weitz, Goodman, Danto, Dickie, Beardsley, Walton, Barthes, Piper, Derrida, Korsmeyer, Bordieu, Jegede, Appiah, Davis, they have all taken up the challenge of defining (or perhaps refusing to define) art. The dialogue and debate are far from over, although to their credit it can safely be said that rarely have they spilled over into the personal, for indeed to characterize an argumentum ad hominem as philosophy is nothing less than an oxymoron. The debate, at least at that level of intellectual competency, has always been enlightening and inspiring and much can be learned from it as long as we keep an open mind.

Let us first take a brief look at some of those conflicting views. The assertion that the intention of the artist is a crucial element in determining that something is a work of art stands in conflict with the assertion that it is the artworld that determines who is an artist in the first place, and what is a work of art. Indeed, this authoritative and institutional approach of the art-world seems to be more inclusive than its rival theories since it includes the viewers who also determine how the work is received; it does not depend on mere qualities intrinsic to the work. Also, the assertion that judgments about works of art are simply a matter of taste (Hume) stands in conflict with the assertion that those judgments are objective and based on universal reason (Kant). The case of Impressionism, as indeed all great schools of painting, would suggest that judgments about art cannot be a mere matter of individual taste or preference, in the eye of the beholder as the saying goes, especially if that eye is defective and cannot distinguish colors. Not many would agree today with the viewers who in 1880 claimed, erroneously by hindsight, that a Monet landscape was poorly executed and therefore not a genuine work of art. The assertion that one aesthetic judgment is as good as any other stands in conflict with the assertion that some individuals are much better qualified than others to make judgments about art.

It is worth mentioning here that the term “aesthetics,” since the times of Immanuel Kant, who coined it in the 18th century, has been used as synonymous for “philosophy of art.” It derives from the Greek word aisthanesthai which means to perceive; practically synonymous with “sensory.” This indicates that philosophers of that time saw our experience of beauty, be it natural or artistic, as primarily a sensory matter. Since then aesthetics has become the accepted characterization of the philosophical study of art. Later, Hegel restricted it to artistic works made by man, thus eliminating natural beauty, also, for Hegel, aesthetics is no longer exclusively concerned with beauty per se. That of course begs the question: what exactly are aesthetic properties?

That is an important consideration since philosophers such as Heidegger, Danto and Goodman, as we have already considered, all agree that art objects have properties that are not present in other things, albeit they don’t all agree as to what those properties are. Which begs the question: don’t we need to agree first that something is a work of art before we attribute such artistic properties to it, or can we attribute those properties to anything at all as long as we choose to view it as art? If I am able to admire the simplicity of my computer’s keyboard, does that make it a work of art independent of its utility as a means of communication? In other words, which is the cart and which is the horse here?

And that brings us to the most thorny issue of all: Is contemporary art still art? Its critics have called it “the rule of surprise novelty and provocation,” having little to do with genuine art. It would be enough to read the fierce controversies in newspapers over public funding of art, to realize why some hostile critics believe that Mapplethorpe’s confrontational photography, Karen Finley performance art, or Nigerian painter Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary, seem to them to have lost touch with the values realized in earlier art. Heidegger for one, as we have also seen, in his The Origin of the Work of Art reveals an aspiration that art should return to what


Aristotle (384-322) author of The Poetics
the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory

he considers its authentic mission: the revelation of the historical world that produced it. On the other hand there are other philosophers, such as Danto, Piper, Korsmeyer, who challenge the very idea of art with a mission and see in contemporary art possibilities for novel expression. So, the dialogue goes on and it is good that it does. It would appear that art is integral part of man’s historical journey and consequently it changes as the journey takes different routes and the destination of that journey becomes clearer. After all, the jury on the whole of man’s history is still out and so is the jury on the whole of man’s artistic production through time and space.


Arthur Danto (1924-2013)

Having explored some of the conflicting views of art and its definition, we are left with this challenge: How are we to understand art? How are we to interpret the great success of a contemporary play such as Art by Yasmina Reza which raises those very questions? Could it be that ordinary people are just as concerned with the issue as the enlightened intelligentsia? Of course painting and the visual arts in general remain paradigmatic of the quintessential art form. Schopenhauer would not agree, he thought music had that role, but he is the exception not the rule. Yet, the privileging of an art form over another could also be seen as a bias affecting the general applicability of any theory of art presented.


Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

If we survey the various philosophers mentioned above we will discover that it is possible to reduce their answers to the question What is the nature of art? to three basic groups: the first group, the most prevalent to be sure, do attempt a definition of art. This is the approach taken by the first philosopher to be interested in art, Plato, who defines it as imitation. This search for a clear definition continues throughout the centuries, even among those who rejected Plato’s definition. Especially with the advent of analytic philosophy at the turn of the 20th century, a style influenced by mathematical logic, the project seems to have become of specifying necessary conditions for the application of the concept “art.” It is felt by these philosophers that for the term to be meaningful, there must be criteria by which to tell what is and what is not a work of art. In surveying and assessing the validity of those definitions of art one has to keep well in mind the distinction between what is classificatory and the evaluative sense of the term “art.” Most attempts are classificatory, that is to say, they try to distinguish what is art from what is not. For example, the imitation theory of Plato proposes that only those things that are imitations of “the real world” are works of art. A white canvas on a wall would be excluded from the class of artwork for it imitates nothing.

Sometimes art is not used in this descriptive way, but rather in an evaluating manner, as when we judge that the white canvas on a wall is not art because it isn’t something a knowledgeable art lover should take very seriously, which of course leaves no room for judging a second rate or inferior work of art. Let us take one purported definition, that of art as a communication of emotion between the creator and the audience. Any object, be it a painting, a poem, a symphony, would fail to be art if it failed to achieve that kind of communication. Here too, the possibility of art being done badly is precluded, but in philosophy too the possibility of doing bad philosophy remains open for philosophy to remain philosophy.

The tendency is to think about art objects in abstraction from anything else, as analytical philosophy tends to do, but even a white canvas can be art only because it is situated in a complex set of relationships. Other elements include the artist as creator of the work as well as the audience experiencing it, plus the conventions governing the art form and art as a whole, modes of artistic training, etc. Here philosophers differ as to which elements are crucial. As we have seen, some, such as Collingwood, focus on the artist even excluding the work itself. Even more counter-intuitively the French literary theorist Roland Barthes thinks of the audience as the real site of artistic meaning. Others, such as Martin Heidegger, view the whole complex of relationships as crucial. So when one wishes to define the nature of art, one must decide for oneself which relationship is most important or you must conclude with Heidegger that the whole should be the object of the definition rather than any of its aspects.

The second approach to the central question of the philosophy of art, what makes something a work of art?, is skepticism about the very possibility of a definition. This is how the skeptic argues: art is itself a phenomenon which by its very nature defeats all attempts to define it. Given that originality is a central value, at least in contemporary art, the artist (be he a painter, or composer, or writer) is constantly trying to break the boundaries of what is considered art. Certainly Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain did so. Duchamp took a mass produced urinal, signed it with the name “R. Mutt,” gave it the title Fountain, and then submitted it for exhibition. Now, if the mere act of naming, signing, and displaying a mass-produced urinal could result in a work of art, how can we specify in advance what sorts of things can be so defined? After all, isn’t art precisely the sort of phenomenon that breaks conventions and challenges the previous convictions about what are is? And if that is so, doesn’t its very nature dictate the impossibility of definition?

These doubts about the possibility to define art were raised in the later part of the 20th century. Within the British analytic tradition we have Morris Weitz which we have also explored; while within the continental European tradition we have Jacques Derrida. To be sure, while they have radically different conceptions of what is the function of philosophy, they nevertheless agree that the philosophical tradition was mistaken in assuming that the appropriate goal for the philosophy of art was defining art’s nature. They both, in their own way, see art as defying the theorist’s ability to conceptualize it.


Morris Weitz (1916-1981)

This approach to the definition of art is an instance of the broader strategy of anti-essentialism, a philosophic position going all the way back to Aristotle proposing that a variety of different particulars can all be referred to by the same word, or fall under the same concept—only if there is a common essence or nature that they all share. For example, the reason each of us can be called a person is that there is an essence to personhood which we all possess. Entities lacking the essence, such as stones and sticks are not persons. While sometimes the boundary may not be very clear (computers with rational properties, or extra intelligent animals like dolphins, for example), most of the times it is possible to distinguish between things that do and things that do not possess this essence.

This will to define art’s nature is an instance of essentialism. It assumes that art has an essence that can be identified theoretically. Finding this essence allows us to determine whether any given object is or is not art. But it is exactly this essentialism that has come under fire in the 20th century. What is at issue is the adequacy of the Aristotelian account of how our conceptual schemes, or our language, work. It is no longer taken as logical that recourse to essences is necessary to explain our ability to refer to a class of objects by a common term. The bases of the traditional account of essences has been exposed as inadequate. For example, the Aristotelian adage that man is a rational animal, privileges rationality which according to the same Aristotle men possess in abundance and women conspicuously lack, while ignoring imagination, intuition, emotions, characteristics in which women excel. In other words, this search for essences may hide unacknowledged political agendas which identify certain characteristics as essential to a given type, and stigmatize other characteristics as defects. Descartes did something like that with his debunking of fairy tales and literary works of imagination which he considered suitable for children but not worthy of people with a full fledged rationality, a rationality robbed or intuition, imagination and feelings. The 19th century partially corrected that blind spot with Rousseau’s famous slogan “I feel, therefore I am,” but Vico had already pointed out the fallacy in the previous century (1730) in his magnum opus The New Science.

In a similar way, when it comes to defining art, attempts at a definition have been used both to legitimize certain types of art and denigrate others. For example, Clive Bell’s “significant form” champions post-impressionist painting and excludes the naturalistic world. African artists such as Jegede and Appiah whom we have also examined, point out the bias of Eurocentric art based on abstract principles of universality against Afrocentric art based on the particularity of individual cultures. The issue is far from resolved. In the absence of necessary and sufficient conditions which the essentialist project privileges, how should we understand the functioning of general terms such as “art”? If anything and everything can be art, then logically, nothing is art.


Clive Bell (1881-1964)

The third approach to a definition of art is the contextual approach as championed by the thought of Hegel. He treated art as a form of philosophical, and ultimately timeless, truth, but he also characterizes it as a series of stages of development realized in different historically and culturally specific contexts. Vico had already postulated three cyclical developments of history (corsi and ricorsi: a spiral moving forward toward an ultimate telos or goal) in the 18th century, but he was largely ignored. Subsequent philosophers, although not as confident as Hegel in the ultimate progression of art toward Truth (a sort of inevitable progress or manifest destiny), nevertheless took from him the idea that the nature of art could be understood properly only as expression of those contexts. Rather than trying to develop a single abstract definition of art these modern theorists (such as Walter Benjamin, Douglas Davis) have focused on art’s changing social role; they don’t treat art as a unitary phenomenon, but, without dismissing the possibility of a definition, they emphasize the socially conditioned transformations in its nature.



Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

There are various reasons why these philosophers, many of them influenced by Karl Marx’s philosophy, are not interested in defining art. They think that those definitions are too abstract and arrive at too high a level of generality. As far as they are concerned, it is more important to understand the actual or concrete functioning of art in particular historical and social contexts than it is to devise a definition that will apply to all contexts. They are suspicious of the universalizing totalizing tendencies of Western philosophy. They follow Marx’s claims about the nature of society and operate within a framework that treats economic and material issues as basic. For them all that is generally called “culture,” including art, is part of the superstructure. They are convinced that the developments of the material base are decisive in the understanding cultural changes in the superstructure. Consequently, to understand art it is important to take note of the changes in the general material structure of society. For example, fundamental changes in the social organization of production and exchange associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie, is as important as understanding changes in the mode of artistic production.


Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

As Marx quips in the first volume of Das Kapital, to illustrate this point, Don Quixote suffered for not realizing that knight errantry was incompatible with all economic structures; this explains why photographically reproduced art and the development of computer-related graphics’ technology interest these philosophers. Indeed, from their point of view, the very nature of art is fundamentally altered by such material or technological developments. With the development of technologies of reproductions—first the photograph and the copying machine, now the computer, it appears that art objects, or at least replicas of them can be endlessly disseminated. Instead of having to travel to Paris to see the Mona Lisa, we can now call up and infinite number of images of the original while sitting at my terminal. We can even “enhance” those images at our heart’s content. Indeed, for all those theorists that operate in this third paradigm, the focus now shifts to this crucial question “How do such developments in the mode of artistic production and dissemination affect art’s very being?” There is wide agreement that these developments are important and decisive, not so on the nature of their effects.


Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Another fundamental issue for those theorists within the third paradigm is the role that art plays in society. There is a general consensus for the view, which dates back to Kant, that art as requiring our disinterested contemplation, that is to say, an awareness untainted by specific interests, desires, or concerns is simply inadequate to the understanding of the function of art. The question, then shifts to art’s relation to social structures, be they economic, gender, racial or sexual.

 On the one hand, the arts are often seen as challenging prevailing social norms. The artist is conceived as a rebel who stands apart from society to condemn it. Think of Manet’s Lunch on the grass. Here art celebrates the potential of the human species and condemns society for suppressing it. As Habermas has aptly put it: “Art satisfies an emancipatory interest, the desire to be free of unnecessary and oppressive social constraints.” But on the other hand, it is hard to ignore the role that some art, especially popular art, plays in society. Adorno’s phrase “the Culture Industry” indicates how art has been assimilated into the same structures that dominate the production of material goods. We can all recall films that more than genuine works of art, are cultural products that serve to strengthen or solidify the status quo and potentially oppressive social relationships. They may be executed artistically and be aesthetically pleasing, but they are also propaganda. “Triumph of the Will” is a case in point. Philosophers concerned with those social functions of art will continue to ask whether the arts in our time function to challenge or support these relationships. They will undoubtedly continue to investigate how changes in the production and dissemination of artworks affect their meaning.


Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)

The above begs this question: Has art’s cultural authority been undermined by technological and social development? How does art function to support the dominant social order? Has the culture industry succeeded in bypassing and even cashing in on gestures of artistic transgression? Or does art continue to play a socially and culturally subversive role? Philosophers have puzzled over art as long as philosophy has existed. The development of the arts of the 20th century, especially in painting, have only deepened the puzzlement. Originally, it seemed evident that art generally strove to accurately represent what it depicted. That theory was left behind once in the late 19th century and 20th century of schools of painting that eschewed accuracy of representation. It is enough to think of post-impressionist painters such as Van Gogh and Munch whose paintings seem more concerned with depicting the artist’s anguish than representing anything. With the advent of abstract and conceptual art, all the traditional approaches to understanding art were discarded.

These historical development explain why the 20th century has provided such rich and lively discussions in the philosophy of art. As Collingwood points out, art as we understand it was not distinguished from its earlier meaning of an activity requiring specialized skills. Hence, not until the 19th century did the philosophy of art come into its own as a distinct philosophic discipline. But even 19th century reflections on art do not reveal the intensity of puzzlement and perplexity that clearly marks 20th century discussions.

The artwork displayed in museums of contemporary art bear only a faint resemblance to the works in museums dedicated to the art of earlier ages. To return to the play Art, mentioned above the three protagonists of that play almost dissolve their friendship because of a deep disagreement over the nature of art. Indeed, the French take their artistic allegiances very seriously. Most of us do not go that far, nevertheless we do share the same perplexities and anxieties about contemporary works of art. Not for nothing our post-modern world has been called “the age of anxiety.” The ongoing dialogue among philosophers on the nature of art may not put to rest those perplexities and anxieties of ours but it may help us in two ways: not to reinvent the wheel, and to better understand the arts’ troubling presence in our contemporary world, for without true understanding no true judgment is possible either.



A Comment by Paolozzi on Paparella’s previous presentation on “Heidegger and Habermas”

Paparella’s acute reflections on Heidegger’s philosophy and its nexus with his acceptance of Nazism, require a further clarification and a new speculative commitment.

I too, like Paparella have returned to reflect on the work of the German philosopher after the writing on art and technology which I published many years ago. I too am of the opinion that Heidegger’s thought is much less original than supposed by an academic fashion in vogue in the last twenty years or so and by now pretty much exhausted. In his aesthetics he reminds us, as I have attempted to demonstrate, positions already well known: not only those of Croce, but even those of Vico and so many other authors in the past.

However, within the context of the attempt to overcome a certain barbarism provoked by positivistic aesthetics, Heidegger came across as a great ally. This is the sense of my essay, not by chance placed in the framework of a research on positivism and anti-positivism. For example, today Chomsky sustains that within philosophy, as within culture in general, everything is resolvable in language understood as expression. I am pleased that the popular linguist affirms what to me appears as a truth. It matters little that Croce had already shown it in 1900, beginning with the very title of his first important work: Aesthetics as science of expression and general linguistics. As mentioned, it matters little even if it is our duty to remember it.

I also find myself in agreement with Paparella on the issue of the shameful acceptance of Nazism on the part of the German philosopher, toward which we have all been a bit too forgiving. But beyond the political commitment, there remains a deep philosophical problem, as Habermas seems to remind us, and on which Paparella re-opens the discussion.

Raffaello Franchini, a great philosopher, but unfortunately not well known, even after having examined impartially Heidegger’s work stressing its historical turn of the later phase would observe with logical rigor that Heidegger’s philosophy being a deterministic philosophy, “destined” so to speak, cannot admit freedom. Not admitting freedom it ultimately can be characterized as a philosophy of moral indifference. That would explain why, beyond personal opportunism, a substantial, tragic coherence exists between philosophical speculation and political praxis. But in this context, Heidegger’s metaphysics of Being is an old one, and it too is not so original. It is substantially false, given that the destiny of Being does not exist until after the facts have happened. First there is the freedom of our thought and of our will; a thought and a will that in our judgment determine being but only after it has “become destiny.” It is ours and therefore free, conditioned and free at the same time as anybody who has absorbed dialectical thought well understand; as that kind of thought which can be and not be, that can be liberty as well ad determinism which can only exist and be understood in the nexus with each other.

The concept of Providence (and here Paparella can enlighten us) cannot be confused with that of destiny. Christian providence admits freedom, in its own way. In God’s grand design man is created free, responsible for his own actions.

That explains why Croce, in an essay of 1934 published in the journal Critica eulogized the theologian Karl Barth who opposed Nazism while Heidegger was enunciating his academic inaugural lecture as rector of the University of Freiburg which consisted of nothing less than a substantial adhesion to Nazism, in the process dishonoring philosophy.

A Response by Paparella

Thank you Ernesto for those lucid comments and observations which are quite helpful in further clarifying my own thoughts and views on this thorny subject of Heidegger’s theory divorced from his praxis. They indeed dovetail the severe comments of Croce on Heidegger in his letter to Karl Vossler of 1933 where he frankly speaks not only of dishonoring, but of prostituting philosophy.

I love what you write in your presentation above about philosophy: “philosophy arises from life and returns to life as one of its indispensable moments,” meaning, if I understand that acute comment correctly, that philosophy is and must remain an existential concern not separable from life, and in turn for life to be rational and human it needs to concern itself not only with the realm of the intelligible and the rational but with its imaginative, intuitional, ethical dimensions, to determine how we, as human beings, ought to conduct ourselves in the polis.

I only wish that I had been offered those same wise illuminating elucidations when I was first exposed to  Heidegger’s philosophy at St. Francis College (a Catholic College) in the mid 60s when I dared, perhaps imprudently, propose the conundrum theory/praxis to the seminar’s professor. Unfortunately the answers I was given then came close to an evasion of the issue and even some pique (expressed in the poor grade administered) at the fact that a mere student had mustered the gumption to challenge the professor’s position on Heidegger’s stance vis a vis Nazism.

For those who have lived most of their lives within the august halls of academia, there are indeed no great surprises here, but then, were we ourselves to give a seminar on Heidegger nowadays we certainly would not hold the same misguided view as that professor at an American Catholic College in the 60s who, perhaps under the then pervading influence of Straussianism, thought that we can validly separate theory from praxis, life from thought in Heidegger’s philosophy, when in point of fact Vico and Croce have well taught us that while man makes history, equally true is that history makes man and eventually history renders its inexorable verdict on man’s ethical stance vis a vis his times and the moral law.





Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting - 15th Meeting -

16th Meeting - 17th Meeting - 18th Meeting - 19th Meeting - 20th Meeting - 21st Meeting -

22nd Meeting -23rd Meeting - 24th Meeting - 25th Meeting -


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Emanuel Paparella2014-01-30 14:56:36
There is a typo under the cover of Dr. Vena's book on modern theater: the date is not 1213 but ought to be 2013. We apologize.

Ovi editors2014-01-30 16:41:31
Mistake corrected.

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