Dates: 1897-1974

Nationality: American

Thomas Munro was a philosopher of art and professor of art history at Western Reserve University. He served as Curator of Education for the Cleveland Museum of Art for 36 years (1931-67). He was educated at Amherst College (B.A. 1916) and Columbia University (M.A. 1917), where he was influenced by philosopher and educator John Dewey. Munro served as a sergeant with the psychological services of the Army Medical Corps before returning to Columbia to get his Ph.D.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Thomas Munro’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 December 2010, 02:35 UTC, <>

Rejecting the time-honored view of art in all its forms as timeless, transcendent productions of the human spirit, Munro, then a young instructor of philosophy at Rutgers, insisted that all art works were products of a specific time and place. As such, he argued, they reflected the styles and conventions, values and biases of their eras and cultures.

“Strictly speaking,” he elaborated in a 1943 essay, “the ingredients of a work of art are not really ‘in’ the object (e.g., a painting) as a physical thing, but largely in the behavior of humans toward it. People respond to a given type of art in a more or less similar way, because of similarities in their innate equipment and cultural conditioning, and tend to project these responses onto the object which arouses them, as if they were attributes of the object itself.” (This explains why some art or music or writing can be hailed as great or important art at some time or place, and exert no appeal at all to later generations or other population groups.)

But since we also come to a work of art as individuals, “no two persons will see exactly the same thing in a picture, for each is led by his nature and habits to select slightly different aspects for special notice.”

Thus, said Munro, it is meaningless to “’describe’ a work of art as beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant, well or badly drawn.” Or, for that matter, to make rigid distinctions between “fine” art and objects made for “use,” with the implication that non-useful arts are somehow superior. Musical compositions, he pointed out, often had utilitarian purposes, as did such elements of visual art as compositional organization. Nor should one look down on so-called “decorative” art, since “all arts contain some decoration and design as well as some representation.”

Such traditional distinctions and rankings must be recognized, in other words, for what they are: subjective or learned cultural biases. By the same token, the attempt to explain art as the self-expression of the artist is, Munro argued, doomed to irrelevance since the artist’s intent, to the extent that it was conscious at all, could not be subjected to scientific scrutiny. Indeed, with the development of scientific and rational thought—and such disciplines as historiography, psychoanalysis, sociology, semantics and phenomenology—humanity is able, perhaps for the first time in history, to throw real light on what art is and, more to the point, how it impacts viewers in the ways that it does.


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