Philosophy of Mass Art - Syllabus

Instructor: Dr. Aaron Smuts


Is popular art essentially flawed? Does it aim at the lowest common denominator? Is there something politically liberating about mechanically produced art? What is mass art? How does mass art engage the emotions? On what grounds can we criticize popular art? How might mass art instruct and corrupt us morally? These are some of the questions this class will explore. The goal of this class is to critically evaluate the fundamental assumptions and central arguments that set the stage for much of the current critical work in the humanities. Students will develop a sophisticated, clear understanding of the key positions in the philosophy of mass art. Students will also gain an understanding of several major issues in the philosophy of art.


There are two required texts for this class: (1) Noel Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford, 1998), which will structure the course. It will serve as both a primary source and as a comprehensive secondary source. (2) The second text is the course packet. The majority of the readings will come from articles in the packet. We will be reading figures such as: Adorno, Dwight MacDonald, Greenberg, Collingwood, Horkenheimer, Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, David Novitz, Susan Feagin, Marx, Engels, Plato, and Althusser.


There will be four forms of coursework: quizzes, formalizations, short papers, and a term paper. I will give regular short quizzes at the beginning of class that will require one sentence answers. You will be required to do several formalizations of key arguments in the readings. These will occur early in the semester. There will be two short 5-page papers on assigned topics. You will also be required to write a term paper, on a topic of your own choosing.


(I listed 14 weeks, to allow for holidays and catch up.)

Week 1

Introduction – The Major Issues

How to read philosophy.

Week 2

Philosophical Resistance to Mass Art

• MacDonald, “A Theory of Mass Culture”

• Carroll, Chapter 1, pp. 1-30

Week 3

Resistance Part II

Greenberg, “Avant-garde and Kitsch”

Collingwood, excerpts from The Principles of Art

• Carroll, Chapter 1, pp. 31-70

Week 4

Resistance Part III

Adorno and Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment and Mass Deception”

• Carroll, Chapter 1, 71-109

Week 5

Philosophical Celebrations of Mass Art

Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Carroll, Chapter 2, pp. 110-144

Week 6

Celebrations Part II

McLuhan, Understanding Media

Carroll, Chapter 2, pp. 145-171

Week 7

The Nature of Mass Art

Carroll, Chapter 3, pp. 172-221

Week 8

Nature Part II

Novitz, “Noel Carroll's Theory of Mass Art”

Fiske, excerpts from Understanding Popular Culture

Carroll, Chapter 3, pp. 222-244

Week 9

Mass Art and the Emotions

Plato, Republic, book X

Carroll, Chapter 4, pp. 245-260

Week 10

Emotions Part II – Identification

Feagin, excerpts from Reading with Feeling

Carroll, Chapter 4, pp. 261-290

Week 11

Mass Art and Morality

• McCormick, “Moral Knowledge and Fiction”

Carroll, Chapter 5, pp. 291-341

Week 12

Morality Part II – Simulation

Currie, “Imagination or Simulation”

Carroll, Chapter 5, pp. 342-359

Week 13

Mass Art and Ideology

Marx and Engels, excerpts from The German Ideology

Althusser, excerpts from For Marx and “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”

Carroll, Chapter 6, pp. 360-363

Week 14

Ideology Part II

Carroll, Chapter 6, pp. 364-418