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Review of Arguing about Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates
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Alex Neill, Aaron Ridley, eds, Arguing about Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates (McGraw-Hill, 1995)

Reviewed by Anita Silvers

University teachers of philosophical aesthetics would do well to keep several copies of this thin but rich volume in their offices to lend to students. It should prove immensely useful in modeling for students how philosophers argue about art. In addition, many of the essays invite further discussion with sufficient ardor to serve as the occasion, or even the subject, of term papers assigned to intermediate or advanced students. As is to be expected, the quality of the essays is not completely uniform, but the standard they exhibit is very high, and the contributors include some of our most accomplished colleagues.

The essayists who engage one another in pairs, triplets, and in one quartet of essays are Curtis Brown, Allen Carlson, Noël Carroll, Stephen Davies, Mary Devereaux, Denis Dutton, William King, Peter Kivy, Flo Lebowitz, Alfred Lessing, Jerrold Levinson, Alex Neil, Ira Newman, Colin Radford, Aaron Ridley, Anthony Savile, Roger Scruton, and James O. Young. In sections which have a slightly different flavor, Susan Feagin takes on David Hume on tragedy, and Albert William Levi does the same with John Dewey in regard to whether museum settings invite or impoverish aesthetic experience.

Edited, and with both initial and sectional introductions by Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley, the volume is meant to show how contemporary philosophical aesthetics is done and to reflect the “diversity of interests and concerns pursued by aestheticians today.” The editors expect it to be used as a supplement to collections of classic texts in aesthetics. But it also would serve very well as the main reading for a graduate or upper division undergraduate seminar.

For the most part, the essays are immensely readable by anyone who has been introduced to philosophical writing. Most of the essays have been previously published, sometimes one explicitly in rejoinder to another. Some few of the essays in the volume have been created especially for its purposes. These features increase the coherence of the discussions, which also is enhanced because the essayists mostly either agree about how to frame the problem they mutually address, or else overtly engage each other about how the problem should be framed.

What topics are explored? Initially, three selections about originality and authenticity (Fakes and Forgeries, Colorizing Movies, and Authentic Musical Performance); next, two on historical topics (Representation in Photography and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature); following this, four on emotion and reason in art (Feelings and Fiction, Tragedy and Pleasure, Sentimentality, and Musical Profundity) and, finally, two which address the institutionalization of art (Feminism and Museums). The categories reported here are the editors¬í, and “there are 39,916,799 other possible ways of ordering the topics,” they say.

This remark suggests that the editors’ primary organizing principle was not to pre-select the volume’s topics, but instead to locate multiples of existing essays which clearly are responsive to the same problem and which also can be seen to be responsive one to another. It is not uncommon to teach historical texts in philosophical aesthetics as similarly responsive to the same problems – Aristotle as answering Plato, Kant as awakened by Hume. It is, however, also not uncommon for students to be puzzled by the fashion in which the discussions of these historical texts seem to slip past one another. Not only do their styles differ noticeably, but they seem not only not to be talking to one another but also not to be talking about the same questions. In fact, students might come to think, with some justice, that philosophy advances not by improving on earlier answers but instead by changing the previous question.

Arguing About Art succeeds admirably in remedying the disorientation students often feel after weeks of reading texts that do not seem to connect with each other. That is, it does so within each intellectual space that is defined by matched and mated essays. But the mix of the volume as a whole is less successfully coherent, I believe.

Earlier, I presented the topics of the essays as the editors describe them. Now let me attempt a somewhat different approach to identifying the topics. Four of the sections – those on fakes, colorizing, authentic performance, and appreciating nature – all directly concern aesthetic evaluation. These discussions are sharp and articulate, and the one between Carlson and Carroll on the aesthetic appreciation of nature has the additional virtue of incorporating much useful background about familiar analyses of aesthetic judgment.

Two more sections could also be seen as being about evaluation. The one on feminist aesthetics grapples with the view of Mary Devereaux and others that feminist approaches to art definitively reject the Kantian thesis about art’s being autonomous and disengaged from practical life. While an important contribution, this understanding of feminism by no means exhausts those propounded by feminist artists and critics. I would have preferred to find several additional essays in this section so as to facilitate students’ connecting the material it contains with the feminist writing they encounter in so many of their courses in literature and the arts, the social sciences, and women’s studies. Surely a volume with space for four (!) selections on colorizing films and three each on musical profundity and musical authenticity, could have made room for more than a mere two essays on feminist aesthetics. Moreover, it seems odd that the three quotations prefacing this section all are authored by men; of the thousands of women who write about the visual arts, several dozen have had something as smart to say about the figure of the female nude as the thoughts expressed in the included quotations from Kenneth Clark, Martin Amis, and John Berger.

Almost all the remaining sections address whether, and if so how, various artistic media refer to, represent, or otherwise exemplify what is in the world beyond them. It seems to me that this is the matter at the root of Roger Scruton’s slightly dismissive assessment of photography as creating mere surrogates rather than representations, of the debates about how tragedies can be pleasurable and whether music can be profound, of the inquiries into the status of fictional characters and their feelings, and, although here I am less persuaded, of what makes a work of art sentimental rather than expressive. Given the connections introduced by this theme, it would have been good to have these sections, which contain nearly half the volume’s entries, grouped together and linked in the brief introductory remarks the editors’ provide at the start of each section.

One last section remains to be mentioned, namely, the contributions about the role of museums by Dewey and Levi. Although these do not, in my view, address our most important current questions about the public presentation of art, they are interesting and work well together. The editors recommend providing opportunities for students to encounter objects on which they can exercise interpretive or evaluative judgment like those at issue in the debates the book presents. I plan to illustrate this section by letting students meander through the CD-ROMS which display the Barnes Collection (for which Dewey was a consultant) and, as a contrast, exhibits from the British National Gallery. Thanks to today’s technology, an encounter with a museum is nearly as easy to arrange in the classroom as a colorized movie.

I would be remiss to commend this very useful volume to you without expressing suitable appreciation for the editors’ work. Their idea for the book is a valuable one, and their execution in assembling it deserves praise. Moreover, their introductions to the sections are instructive without being paternalistically so. They inform the reader and help structure discussion without infringing upon the thinking students need to do themselves to understand and weigh the philosophical positions these essays explore. The introductory material prepared by Neill and Ridley is thus especially valuable because it does not preempt its student readers from doing their own “arguing about art”.


1998 © Anita Silvers

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