Why Lydia Goehr’s Philosophy Writing Matters: the Future of Aesthetics

For Americans of my generation doing philosophical aesthetics, Arthur Danto (1924-2013) was the key figure. He became famous because he offered a system defining art and linking it to other activities. But then what comes next? How, I am asking, will scholars build upon his achievement? Me, I would nominate for the role of his heir Lydia Goehr, who is a professor (like Danto) in the Columbia University philosophy department. In some important ways, as I will explain, her concerns are very different. That’s what happens when what comes next is deeply challenging. I focus here on Goehr’s Red Sea–Red Square–Red Thread (2021), because it is her most recent book, and because it’s her discussion immediately relevant to larger philosophical debates.

The key argument of Danto’s aesthetic in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1981) can be stated simply, although working out the details of the analysis is devilishly complicated. Consider, he proposes, two visually identical red squares. But one of them is Kazimir Malevich’s Red Square (1915), a monochrome painting, while the other square, visually indistinguishable, is merely a red paint sample, not a work of art at all. What follows, Danto argues, is that the identity of a visual artwork cannot be determined by its appearance. That important claim initially seems obviously paradoxical. Who would have thought that art is not defined by its visual qualities? We might, indeed, following Danto, develop a similar point about Andy Warhol’s pop sculpture, Brillo Box (1964), which is essentially visually identical to a Brillo box found in the supermarket. In both of these cases, the two artworks are obviously very different from these identical-looking visual objects. And so, Danto says, we need some theorizing to explain the difference. We need, that is, to explain why Red Square and Brillo Box are of passionate interest to curators and art writers, and aestheticians, while the corresponding red square and Brillo box are merely banal physical things, and not artworks. And also we want to understand why in the twentieth-century art developed to the point that such indiscernible artifacts became of artistic interest. How did it happen that artworks like Red Square and Brillo Box became important?

In fact, in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace Danto presents a whole sequence of such visually identical red squares. But here these two are enough to make his essential philosophical point. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, a full length book, discusses a number of issues, all very important: the nature of style, artistic expression and the definition of art. But Danto’s basic key argument could be written on a postcard. In response, Red Sea–Red Square–Red Thread asks a simple question: Is it appropriate to detach these pairs of examples from their larger context? To pose that question in a concrete way Goehr presents in detail very many real examples. To name just three: a bohemian painter in a Puccini opera who is painting a red monochrome; William Hogarth’s painting of the red sea, and all of the associations involved with the Jews’ flight from captivity in Egypt- in short, the whole history of anti-semitism; and of course the connections of red with the Bolshevik revolution, where Malevich aspired to play a serious practical role.

Danto’s account of his indiscernibles takes only three pages. But Goehr’s response to him is 650 pages long because she wants to spell our some the implications of these examples. Andshe is doing something more than offering free associations or spelling out the implications of his account. What’s at stake, she also suggests, is the very identity of analytic philosophy. Danto shields himself from all the implications of his analysis, she claims, by sticking to the laconic account. Her goal, she seems to be claiming, is to restore a political dimension to Danto’s basically apolitical analysis. You cannot, she says, talk about red squares without bringing into discussion all of these intricate associations. Red squares inevitably have social and political meanings.

In his book What Philosophy Is a Guide to the Elements (1968) Danto assembled an array of examples of indiscernible. To consider just three: following Rene Descartes’s famous discussion, waking and dreaming experience; from Bertrand Russell, comparing our world, and a world including the fossils made just 5 minutes ago by a malevolent demon; following Danto’s own earlier publications, contrast lifting my hand and having my hand go up because someone moved it. Thus Descartes argues that no internal criteria permit distinguishing between waking and dreaming experience. I might, for example, believe right now that I am not asleep only to find myself waking up from a vivid dream. Those two experiences are indiscernible in same way that Red Square and a red square or Brillo Box and a Brillo box are indiscernible. Similarly, we can compare and contrast our ancient world and a world made by a mischievous creator 5 minutes ago, or my voluntary hand movement and that movement caused by someone else. In each case we have identical looking things with very different qualities.

A real part of the impressiveness of Danto’s philosophical system is that he thus identifies a unity to philosophical analysis. What defines philosophy, he argues, is the concern with such indiscernibles. And so it might well be that the kind of objection which Goehr poses against his aesthetics could also be made against these other examples as well. That is, once could argue that Danto’s basic procedure, in aesthetics as in philosophy generally, involves isolating examples to create his indiscernibles. But if that cannot be coherently done, even in thought, then his system will collapse. Goehr doesn’t pursue that point. Not yet. But as it is Red Sea–Red Square–Red Thread is so ambitious, so original, so detailed, and even so poetic that it transcends mere commentary. Some books inspire envy: one says, ‘I wish that I had thought of what they claim’. Goehr’s discussion inspires awe. I never imagined such an account until I read hers. Most responses, including many of mine, to Danto have involved nickel and dime- ing, in good analytic style. What she offers is something completely different entirely.

In her first book, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (1992, revised 2007) Goehr developed an important innovative thesis about the nature of musical scores in relation to performances. And then in her Elective Affinities: Musical Essays on the History of Aesthetic Theory (2008) she contrasted the philosophies of Theodore Adorno and Danto, adjudicating the concerns of continental and analytical philosophy. And so, it may be the case that now she is ready to synthesize those claims with the visionary analysis presented in Red Sea–Red Square–Red Thread . That will be something worth waiting for! I hope (and actually expect) that eventually someone who is more erudite and a smarter philosopher than I am will trace her amazing career in a comprehensive way.


This account draws upon my reviews of Goehr’s books,




David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.