How and Why to teach inclusively in Aesthetics

University of Oklahoma

In the predominantly white institution (PWI) where I teach, I regularly offer a 3rd-year undergraduate course titled Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Early in the semester, I give a lecture in which I discuss the circulation of power and privilege in the determination of what counts as good taste and which artworks are incorporated into the canon. We read a selection from Kwame Anthony Appiah (1992) and discuss works from the Baule and Yoruba cultures. We read Maurice Berger (1990) and discuss the work of American artists David Hammons and Kara Walker, both of whom confront the stubborn persistence of racial stereotypes and racialized oppression. We read Carol Duncan (1983) and discuss the gendered nature of the projects that have often been most highly valued in art.

A few years ago, after this lecture, I received a message from one of my students, an African-American woman. The message read, in part, as follows:

Initially, I expected to discuss Rembrandt, Van Gogh and other headliner artists. However, I was surprised to learn about African and Black art and that we actually exist in that world. I left class enlightened, inspired and had a sense of pride because MY professor was teaching MY classmates about MY culture.

I cried.

Because for the first time, my culture was expressed in a course that was not directly affiliated with the [African and African-American Studies program] or a class specific to race. For the first time in my academic career, I felt like my culture was included. It felt great for our existence in other aspects of society to be acknowledged. 

Thank you. 

I can't express enough the sense of pride I had leaving class.

This student was a senior and had already completed four full years of enrollment at the university; the experience of cultural erasure she described had characterized her whole university career. 

Students of color have this experience frequently in PWIs. I live in a US state that has been a crucial site in the displacement of Indigenous peoples and has a disproportionately large Indigenous population, but issues related to indigeneity are rarely addressed outside the Native American Studies program and a few anthropology courses. Latino students, students from Middle Eastern backgrounds, and students of Asian descent in many disciplines may go through an entire curriculum without finding people of their own racial, ethic or cultural background represented. 

White students, too, experience the overwhelming whiteness of the curriculum, though they may not even notice it. This reinforces a subtle but powerful sense that only the cultural and intellectual contributions of people racialized as white are worth representing. The damage that can be – and has been – wrought by this implicit valuational hierarchy is enormous. 

That is the first reason to teach inclusively in aesthetics: we should work to dismantle, not contribute to, the undervaluing of scholarship and art by people who are not racialized as white, as well as by people who are not gendered as men and people who are not understood as able-bodied, heterosexual, and cisgender. The second reason is that aesthetics is one of the easiest disciplines in which to teach inclusively: the resources for designing an inclusive syllabus and curriculum are quite vast, and there are several strategies that are easy to apply. I'll discuss three of these strategies here.

1. Interdisciplinarity

Every central question in aesthetics has been treated extensively by scholars who do not identify themselves primarily as aestheticians or even as philosophers, offering many resources to draw upon in diversifying the syllabus. Clive Bell and Leo Tolstoy are often juxtaposed in discussions of art's central function and value. But Ellen Dissanayake (1988), whose work bridges anthropology and philosophical aesthetics, offers a quite different approach to the topic, arguing that art is on a continuum with other human practices that are centered on “making special" and serve to secure individual well-being and community cohesiveness. Ajume Wingo (2004), primarily a political philosopher who has written several essays in aesthetics, discusses the social function of art in a paper that connects a discussion of African masks to central questions in aesthetics about art's nature and function. 

Art historians have written many relevant papers: so, for instance, a great pairing is of Kant's discussion of genius with Linda Nochlin's (1971) great essay arguing that the notion of artistic genius has often functioned to exclude women and obscure the obstacles to their artistic success. 

Hume's essay “Of the Standard of Taste" can be complemented by several other texts. The Tobin Siebers' (2006) brilliant paper “Disability Aesthetics" argues, against what one might assume to be a tendency to perfectionism in Hume, that disability is in fact a source of positive aesthetic value. Hume's account of ideal critics can be placed in dialogue with treatments of how actual tastemaking functions in the artworld as a vehicle for power and privilege in the forms of patriarchy and white supremacy. I use the trio of essays discussed above by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (1992), art critic Maurice Berger (1990) and art historian Carol Duncan (1983) for this purpose. 

All the essays I've mentioned are engaging and eminently readable, and there are plenty more where these came from. The content is not difficult to master, either for instructors or for students.

2. Strategic choice of topics

The second strategy is to choose topics that have been written about extensively by scholars from groups underrepresented in philosophy. This, too, is easy and getting easier every day. Sometimes, attempts to diversify the syllabus follow this sequence: first we select our topics, and then we try to see if people who belong to groups underrepresented in philosophy have written on them. This strategy involves reversing the order of these steps. If we look around first to see which topics in aesthetics women, disability scholars, queer scholars and scholars of color have been writing about, we can incorporate these topics in our syllabus in ways that also shed light on topics thought of as “core" or “mainstream." 

A topic I have been working on and teaching is the aesthetics of the body, in which there is a great deal of research that touches on central questions about aesthetic value, aesthetic experience, and the communicative and social functions of appearances. Body aesthetics works well, pedagogically, because it is easy for students to connect to their own experiences and intuitions. It is also easy to connect to broader ethical, moral and political matters. Work on racialized standards of beauty has been done by sociologists Shirley Anne Tate (2009) and Maxine Leeds Craig (2002); work on aesthetic experience and eating disorders has been done by philosopher Sheila Lintott (2003); and Judith Butler (1988) discusses the construction of gender through performative acts, with connections to theatre, everyday performative activity, and the concept of style. A pairing I particularly enjoy is of Karen Hanson (1990) with Chike Jeffers (2013). Hanson discusses the communicative and social functions of fashion, and Jeffers explores these issues in relation to a specific example, namely the expressive function of hoodies when worn by Black kids. 

A volume I am editing, due out in 2016, will include new essays on the aesthetics of the body by critical race scholars, feminist scholars, sociologists, a choreographer and dancer, a disability scholar, and several philosophers. (Irvin in press) I also recommend consulting the work of Judith Halberstam (2005) on queer and trans aesthetics and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (1997, 2009) on disability and other forms of what she calls unusual embodiment.

Another topic that is very promising for this strategy is cultural appropriation, which connects to central aesthetic questions about authorship, audience, and the presentation, reception and interpretation of cultural objects. It also connects to students' lives by way of matters ranging from hairstyles to Halloween costumes to hip-hop, and it provides opportunities to think about matters of indigenous sovereignty, race, sexuality and gender. Rebecca Tsosie (2002) offers a compelling discussion of the appropriation of tribal stories that addresses matters of authorship at the level of cultural groups rather than individual authors. A. W. Eaton and Ivan Gaskell (2009) discuss the ethics of displaying cultural objects produced in non-Western cultures, sometimes for non-artistic purposes, in Western art museums. A collection edited by Forman and Neal (2004) includes a number of essays by philosophers and theorists in other disciplines that can be used to think about matters of cultural appropriation in relation to hip-hop music. Many thoughtful blog posts exist about matters of cultural appropriation as well.

3. Diverse examples

The third strategy is to use diverse examples of artworks and aesthetic phenomena to illustrate the philosophical theories discussed in your course. If you've adopted the first two strategies, this tends to be easy, since the readings you've selected probably include many such examples. But incorporating diverse examples is quite manageable even when they are not embedded in the readings. 

Here are a few ideas. I often have students read an essay by the art historian John Berger (1960), who suggests that he values work that helps people to know and claim their social rights. He clarifies that this does not mean valuable art must be protest art or must directly address social justice. But I use this as an opportunity to look at artworks that have addressed social justice, and considering which seem to have the most potential to create change. One set of examples is work by queer artists during the AIDS crisis: posters by ACT UP – not to mention their performative action of putting a condom over Jesse Helms's house – the AIDS quilt created by the Names Project, the poster and sticker campaign by Gran Fury, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres's work about his lover Ross, who died of AIDS in 1991 (discussed in Irvin 2008). Another grouping is of recent works in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Jasiri X's (2012) “A Song for Trayvon" , the 2014 flash mob at the St. Louis Symphony and Claudia Rankine's (2015) “Citizen: An American Lyric." Peg Brand Weiser (1995) offers an excellent discussion connecting activist art back to the traditional distinction between the aesthetic and non-aesthetic.

In a discussion of photography, I start by giving my students a short introduction to the diversity of photographic practices. This offers an opportunity to consider Margaret Bourke-White's photographs at Buchenwald, Gordon Parks's civil rights-era photographs of Black Americans, the staged tableaux of Janieta Eyre and Wang Qingsong, Henri Cartier-Bresson's transcendent moments, the technically sophisticated double-exposure self-portraits of Hélène Amouzou, and the presentation of stereotypically feminine roles by Wendy Red Star and Cindy Sherman. Looking at all of these works together ensures that students don't have an overly narrow notion of what photography is or of who can contribute to it. 

When we discuss the role of the artist's intention in interpretation, we listen to the Black American poet Gwendolyn Brooks reading and discussing her poem “We Real Cool," and mentioning an interpretation she never intended but is happy to allow for anyone who finds it rewarding. (The recording is available here: Click the audio icon near the upper left of the page.) 

It's also helpful, of course, to have a repertoire of examples in mind that one can call up spontaneously in discussions. This requires a commitment to learning about work created by artists who are diverse in race, culture, and gender, among other dimensions. But this, I would argue, is part of the fun: having a sound pedagogical reason to explore and learn more about diverse artistic practices – for an aesthetician, what could be better?

Final notes

These strategies may sound intimidating to philosophers who are interested in inclusive teaching but whose training (like mine) was in a white- and male-dominated philosophical canon. But I assure you that all of the material I've mentioned is extremely accessible, and teaching it does not require a deep background in any other discipline. 

Also, making incremental changes in a syllabus that was not originally designed with inclusiveness in mind is entirely feasible: one does not have to overhaul everything at once. By beginning to incorporate discussions of race and gender into the syllabus, making a few changes every semester that are manageable in the context of a heavy workload, one can bootstrap one's way into competence at discussing these topics. Quite a few of my selections are due for updating – more recent essays to replace those by Maurice Berger and Carol Duncan, reflecting how the situation has changed since the 80s and 90s, would be desirable (Suggestions? E-mail me!) – but my approach, given other demands on my time, is to seek gradual improvement rather than attempt total overhaul. New resources created by Simon Fokt and Monique Roelofs, with the aid of Curriculum Grants from the American Society for Aesthetics Diversity Committee, provide many annotated suggestions for readings in addition to the things I've mentioned here (see here: Curriculum Grants). 

In my own career, I have found that teaching material that stretches the boundaries of my knowledge has been enormously valuable. As my knowledge has grown, teaching in these areas has enriched my research and allowed me to create new professional relationships with people who work in critical race theory, gender studies, queer theory, and disability theory both within and outside philosophy. It has also allowed me to provide support to and elevate the voices of students who often feel marginalized and silenced in PWIs – and, ultimately, to a better job teaching all of my students.


Appiah, Kwame Anthony. (1992). In my father's house: Africa in the philosophy of culture. Oxford University Press. Excerpted in Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard, Eds., Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 374-379.
Berger, John. (1960). Introduction to Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (London, Methuen). Excerpted as “Lessons of the Past" in Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard, Eds., Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 371-374. 
Berger, Maurice. (1990). “Are Art Museums Racist?" Art in America 78 (9), September, 68-77. Excerpted in David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown, Eds., Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), pp. 536-542.
Butler, Judith. (1988). “Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory." Theatre Journal 40 (4), 519-531.
Craig, Maxine Leeds. (2002). Ain't I a Beauty Queen? Oxford University Press. 
Dissanayake, Ellen. (1988). What Is Art For? University of Washington Press. A related reading is available online
Duncan, Carol. (1983). “Who Rules the Art World?" Socialist Review 70, 99-119.
Eaton, A. W., and Gaskell, Ivan. (2009). “Do Subaltern Artifacts Belong in Art Museums?" In The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation, ed. James O. Young & Conrad G. Brunk. John Wiley & Sons, 235-67.
Forman, Murray, and Mark Anthony Neal. (2004). That's the joint! The hip-hop studies reader. Routledge.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. (1997). Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. Columbia University Press.
______ (2009). Staring: How we look. Oxford University Press.
Halberstam, Judith. (2005). In a queer time and place: Transgender bodies, subcultural lives. NYU Press.
Hanson, Karen. (1990). “Dressing down dressing up: The philosophic fear of fashion." Hypatia 5 (2), 107-121. Reprinted in Carolyn Korsmeyer, Ed., Aesthetics: The Big Questions(Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 59-71.
Irvin, Sherri, ed. (in press). Body Aesthetics. Oxford University Press. Expected July 2016.
______. (2008). “The Ontological Diversity of Visual Artworks." New Waves in Aesthetics, ed. Kathleen Stock and Katherine Thomson-Jones (Palgrave Macmillan), 1-19.
Jeffers, Chike. (2013), “Should Black Kids Avoid Wearing Hoodies?" In George Yancy and Janine Jones, eds., Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics (Lanham, MD: Lexington), pp. 129-140.
Lintott, Sheila. (2003). “Sublime hunger: a consideration of eating disorders beyond beauty." Hypatia 18(4), 65-86.
Nochlin, Linda (1971). “Why have there been no great women artists?" ARTnews, January. Available online. Excerpted in P. Alperson, Ed., The Philosophy of the Visual Arts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 260-270. 
Siebers, Tobin. (2006). “Disability Aesthetics." Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 7, 63-73. Available online at:
Tate, Shirley Anne. (2009). Black Beauty: Aesthetics, Stylization, Politics (Burlington, VT: Ashgate). See especially “'Beauty Comes From Within': Or Does It?" at pp. 17-33.
Tsosie, Rebecca. (2002). “Reclaiming native stories: an essay on cultural appropriation and cultural rights." Arizona State Law Journal, 34, 299-358. Available online.
Weiser, Peg Brand. (1995). “Revising the Aesthetic-Nonaesthetic Distinction: The Aesthetic Value of Activist Art." In Peggy Zeglin Brand and Carolyn Korsmeyer, eds., Feminism and Tradition in Aesthetics (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press). Originally published under the name Peggy Zeglin Brand.
Wingo, Ajume H. (2004). “The Many-Layered Aesthetics of African Art." Kwasi Wiredu, Ed., A Companion to African Philosophy (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 425-432.