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Christopher Earley

Philosophy, University of Warwick

Thesis title:

A Defence of the Cognitive Value of Contemporary Avant-Garde Art

Contemporary art is a global success story, routinely praised for its variety, its experimentation, its difficulty, and its intervention into the world beyond the gallery. However, the art historian Hal Foster remarks that, upon scrutiny, contemporary art also appears “to float free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgement.” The closer one gets to contemporary art, the more confused the category becomes, and the more questionable its claims to significance. In this thesis, I will use the tools of philosophy to provide an elucidation and defence of contemporary art. First, I give an account of what features make contemporary art distinct from other categories of art. Though many take contemporary art’s main distinguishing feature to be its absolute heterogeneity of material, art form, genre, or style, I propose that this is too narrow. I instead argue that the most critically tractable strand of contemporary art is  distinguished by its attempts to seriously engage with the crises of the historical condition of contemporaneity. Second, I attempt to make sense of how engagement functions, and how it affects the way audiences encounter and value contemporary art. I claim that engaged artwork make their audiences active participants in improving their own standing on affairs beyond the artwork. I elaborate this by focussing on the cognitive dimensions of this activity, arguing that rather than just provide their audiences with insights contemporary artworks more often invite their audiences to become active contributors to inquiry by laying out prompts and constraints that guide this activity. I argue that this leads audiences not to knowledge, but to understanding of the crises that they are implicated within. In the final part of the thesis, I turn to showing how foregrounding engagement with crises shapes the responsibilities of artists and audiences, and impacts what critics hold to be important in correctly appreciating and evaluating contemporary art. In shedding light on the phenomenon of engagement, this thesis aims to advance the sparse philosophical literature on contemporary art, giving a novel philosophical framework for understanding its aims, its methods, its missteps, and its achievements. 

Research Area

  • Philosophy


'Artistic Exceptionalism and the Risks of Activist Art' (2023)

The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 81 (2).

'Review: Mikkonen, Philosophy, Literature and Understanding: On Reading and Cognition (Bloomsbury, 2021)' (2022)

The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 62 (3), 499-502.


'On Timelessness and Topicality' (2023)

BSA Conference in Celebration of Peter Lamarque, University of York, UK

'Art Lacks Discipline' (2023)

Edgington Lectures Workshop with Catherine Elgin, Birkbeck College, University of London, UK


'Distance Learning: Insight Through Art and Audience Creativity' (2023)

De Montfort University/Leicester Gallery, Leicester, UK


'Civil Disobedience/Uncivil Obedience: Art and Climate Change Activism' (2022)

Radical Landscapes Roundtable, Mead Gallery/Tate Liverpool, Coventry, UK


'Political Art, Artistic Exceptionalism, and Humility' (2022)

American Society of Aesthetics Annual Conference, Portland, OR, USA

British Society of Aesthetics Annual Conference, St Anne's College, University of Oxford, UK

Warwick Graduate Welcome Conference, University of Warwick, UK


'Adrian Piper's Epistemic Activism' (2022)

European Society of Aesthetics Conference, Estonian Academy of Arts, Estonia

Postgraduate Work in Progress Seminars, University of Warwick, UK


'Cognition Through Art and the Problem of Distance' (2021)

Understanding Value X, University of Sheffield (online)

Scottish Aesthetics Forum Graduate Workshop, University of St Andrews (online)


'What Contemporary Art Should Be' (2021)

European Society of Aesthetics Conference, Estonian Academy of Arts (online)


'Hypothesis Generators – Inquiry in Contemporary Art' (2020)

Warwick Graduate Welcome Conference, University of Warwick (online)


'"ENERGY = YES, QUALITY = NO": Theaster Gates, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Aesthetic Experience' (2019)

5th British Society of Aesthetics PG Conference, University of York, UK


'Cognitivism, Imagination, and the Avant-Garde' (2018)

Philosophy Graduate Seminar Series, King's College London, UK


'"Refuse to refuse": Debt and Disability in the Work of Stanya Khan' (2015)

Slade Work in Progress Seminar Series, University College London, UK


'The Poet and the Engineer: Writing Infrastructure and Matter' (2015)

Northumbria Poetry Symposium (Work, Performance, Poetry), University of Northumbria, UK

Public Engagement & Impact

Research assistant to Dr Karen Simecek (Warwick) and Dr Andrew Cooper (Warwick) for Empowering Young Voices: Performing Poetry as a Practice of Social Justice project, conducted in collaboration with members of Coventry Boys and Girls Club and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (2022-23)


Research assistant to Professor Karen Simecek (Warwick) for Words, Voices, Bodies project, conducted in collaboration with Poet in the City and 20 poets from around the UK (2021)