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Corporeality and Spirituality in the Avant Garde

The 20th century is often characterized by a plurality of aesthetic movements and the rhetoric of innovation common to most of them. And yet, many of the fundamental differences between these movements can be understood in terms of diverging viewpoints on the rather ancient distinction between the body and the soul. Harry Partch speaks of corporeality and the naming power of the word as an antidote to the obdurate influence of “the abstract ideal” in Western culture. Vassily Kandinsky situates the spiritual dimension of art in a space beyond language, reference, and mimetic representation. Among philosophers, John Dewey and Martin Heidegger seek to collapse the distance between mind, body, and world by dissolving the barrier of subject/object duality. For many artists in the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, these interests are worked out in artistic practices that embody a self-conscious motion away from Hegelian idealism toward Marxian materialism, a move from the notion of art as an expression of a consummate ideal to a notion of art as social critique. In this seminar we will examine these questions as we trace the historical and philosophical origins of the Euro-American avant-garde.


The course will be organized into five modules:


A Corporeal History of Music – The Body and Soul in Classical Metaphysics – The Mountains are the Earth; the Art of Being-in-the-world – The Politics of Mind and Matter – The Inarticulable Clarity of Spirit



Critical Responses [30%]

You will be responsible for a short critique or set of response questions for each article. These are intended to stimulate discussion and will be turned in at the end of each class (c. 2 pages). See below for guidance on preparing responses.

Presentations [35%] Each article will have an assigned respondent who will present their response in class.  These should be somewhat more fully developed than the written responses.

Final Paper/Project [35%]

There will be two options for the final: a 15-page research paper or an artwork that responds to the texts we will engage together with a shorter theoretical statement (5-6 pages). 


A Corporeal History of Music

Partch, Genesis of a Music, part 1


The Body and Soul in Classical Metaphysics

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries:


Plato’s Aesthetics:




7. The Four Causal Account of Explanatory Adequacy, 8. Hylomorphism, 9. Aristotelian Teleology, 13. Rhetoric and the Arts


Aristotle’s Psychology:

2. Hylomorphism in General, 3. Hylomorphic Soul-Body Relations: Materialism, Dualism, Sui Generis?, 7. Mind, 8. Desire

(source readings):

Plato, Republic: Book X, Phaedrus  

Aristotle, De Anima, Physics II, 3, Metaphysics: V, 2, Poetics: sections 1 — 2 (I - XX)

The Mountains are the Earth; the Art of Being-in-the-world

Dewey, Art as Experience, Chapters 1 and 5

Wilshire, The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology and Native American Thought, Preface, Chapter 12


(background reading):

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Dewey’s Aesthetics:

The Politics of Mind and Matter

Bürger, Theory of the avant garde (selections)


Case Study I: Cage

Cage, Experimental Music: DOCTRINE

Eco, The Poetics of the Open Work

Nyman, Towards a Definition of Experimental Music

Taruskin, No ear for music: the scary purity of John Cage

The Inarticulable Clarity of Spirit

Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Cobussen, Music and Spirituality: 13 Meditations around Crumb’s Black Angels


(background reading):

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries: 


Deleuze (Sections 3 — 5)

Derrida (5. Deconstruction):


Case Study II: Harvey

Harvey, In Quest of Spirit: Thoughts on Music (optional)

Finals week: presentations

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