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Philosophy at the Virtual Art Museum

Using art to prompt philosophical discussions in the high school classroom.

Teacher Guide

Four Darks in Red

Mark Rothko, 1958
FILTERS: Abstract Art

Artwork Module Navigation

Questions for Philisophical Discussion

  1. How does this painting differ from other abstract paintings you have seen?
  2. How do the large, rectangular fields of color affect you? Mark Rothko intended viewers to look at this painting in person, and up close. Do you think the large fields of color would have a different effect when viewed in person?
  3. What do you think the artist is trying to communicate?
  4. Do you think this painting is beautiful?
  5. Why is this painting called abstract? Are there specific feature(s) of the painting that the term refers to? Are there other ways of describing this work that you think are more appropriate?
  6. Besides certain works of art, what sorts of things are called abstract? (Hint: Think about the different subjects you study in school. Are some of them more abstract than others? Which ones? What makes those subjects abstract?)
  7. How does the term “abstract” describe those things? Does it evaluate them, say in a positive or negative way? Does it refer to certain properties of those things?
  8. What makes something abstract? What is the opposite of abstract? Does the word “abstract” have a definite meaning? Can you define it?
  9. Philosophy is sometimes described as abstract. Do these paintings and philosophy share something that makes them both abstract?

Additional Resources

Abstract Art Overview and Resources

Abstract art, also known as non-representational art, is imagery that does not make visual reference to people, places or things in the real world. The paintings in this unit are all examples of Western abstract art from the twentieth century.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art: Abstract Art
 is an excellent resource for further information on abstraction and abstract art.

The topic of the meaning of the term “abstract” introduces themes from the philosophy of language, in particular the difference between description and evaluation. Here are some more resources for exploring the concepts introduced by abstract art.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on abstract objects

There is an interesting controversy between John Locke and George Berkeley on whether there can be abstract ideas. The Introduction to Berkeley’s The Principles of Human Knowledge contains a nice presentation of the theory and Berkeley’s criticisms of it.

Episode of Philosophy Talk about the nature of art

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Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958
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Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958
Download & Print Send Via Email
Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958

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