Dabney Townsend, An Introduction to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 1997)
Reviewed by Deborah Fitzgerald
Dabney Townsend’s new book, An Introduction to Aesthetics is part of a Blackwell Publishers series entitled ‘Introducing Philosophy,’ whose aim is to present a ‘series of textbooks designed to introduce the basic topics of philosophy for any student approaching the subject for the first time. Each volume presents a central subject of philosophy by considering the key issues and outlooks associated with the area. With the emphasis firmly on the arguments for and against a philosophical position, the reader is encouraged to think philosophically about the subject. Townsend’s book is quite successful in accomplishing these goals.
My only caveat with regard to this claim is that we must think of the ‘student approaching this topic for the first time’ as a bright undergraduate at a college or university with high standards. Having taught at a range of colleges and universities, from one with open admissions to one with students with high S.A.T. scores, I think I can safely say that this book may be too difficult for some beginning students. It assumes that the student will be one with a broad intellectual background, and one with some background in philosophy. This will not always be the case. An example illustrating Townsend’s assumptions occurs in the chapter on ‘Aesthetic Analysis and its Objects.’ In claiming that ‘if imitation theories are to work, they must be able to distinguish aesthetic effects from other effects’ (72), Townsend mentions Aristotle and catharsis. However, catharsis is not really explained. He only states that catharsis ‘seems to mean a kind of ritual purgation that takes place both in the play and its audience’ (72). This, though, would hardly suffice as an explanation for a beginning student. His discussion of the type/token distinction (74-6) and his allusion to Platonic forms without explanation (78) also creates some concern. This type of presentation again assumes a familiarity with basic philosophical views, but many students of aesthetics at some universities have had no previous philosophy prior to taking an aesthetics course. However, the fact that the book succeeds, I believe, both in its goal of considering key issues, and getting the beginning reader to think philosophically is a great plus. Townsend does manage to make the issues come alive.
In addition, the book’s approach to the key issues in aesthetics is an interesting one. Instead of dividing the book historically, or into traditional topics such as the ontological status of a work of art, theories of the aesthetic, art theory, and so forth (as does the George Dickie and Richard Sclafani anthology, for example), Townsend divides the book into five sections entitled: ‘Language About Art and the Aesthetic,’ ‘Aesthetic Analysis and its Objects,’ ‘The Artist and the Work of Art,’ ‘The Audience and the Work of Art,’ and ‘The Artist and the Audience.’ This approach allows students to more readily see the cross connections between issues about the status of art objects and issues of aesthetic appreciation. For example, in the section on ‘The Audience and the Work of Art,’ both the issues of possible aesthetic responses and that of attitudes of an audience are discussed, in connection with the institutional analysis of the status of a work of art. In general, Townsend is careful to remind his reader that the issues in aesthetics can not be neatly bracketed.
Another aspect of the book which is useful both for the reader and any teacher using the book, is that at the end of each chapter there is both a section labeled ‘Conclusion,’ and a section on ‘References and Suggestions for Further Reading.’ In addition, at the end of the text there is a glossary of terms with which a beginning reader may not be familiar. This is also most helpful, especially for those students without much philosphical background for whom Blackwell indends this book.
With regard to the Blackwell series’ goal of encouraging philosophical thinking, Townsend states that his task is not to make a final choice among aesthetic theories presented (6). And at the conclusion of his book, he maintains, ‘Perhaps we have only opened the door to confusion’ (210). Since his approach has been to try to present the merits, as well as weaknesses of each theory discussed (at times it seems that he is supporting a view which he then proceeds to criticize), this could indeed result in confusion for the reader (as opposed to a book that argues only for one philosophical stance). However, this is precisely why, I believe, he has succeeded in the series’ aim of encouraging the reader to think philosophically about aesthetics. Every semester, I tell my Introduction to Philosophy students that part of my goal is to confuse them, and that if they are never confused during the course of the term, I have failed as a teacher. This is based on my belief that a feeling of intellectual confusion is usually needed in order to motivate someone to think philosophically about an issue. Consequently, Townsend’s unwillingness to argue only for one position on some issues should not be seen as a failure on his part, but a philosophical strength of the book.
Another strength of his book is that Townsend believes that ‘Aesthetics must be based on observations about art’ that ‘aesthetics must refer to examples’ (4). However, a weakness is that there are no pictures to accompany the text. Also, he fails to refer to enough examples, and fails to explain some examples sufficiently. In the chapter on ‘Language About Art and the Aesthetic,’ in discussing how we treat art differently from non-art, Townsend states, ‘Theoretically, we approach art differently. If someone wrapping a building in plastic is art, we try to see what is happening. If it is not art, it is a public nuisance and we arrest the person responsible’ (43). Townsend is alluding to Christo, of course, but no explicit mention is made of him, nor is he discussed in a footnote. Many beginning students in aesthetics will not know that a famous artist has wrapped buildings in plastic. Reference to Christo would constitute a more sufficient explanation. Or again, he does not mention Marcel Duchamp when he discusses ‘some natural object, a rock or piece of wood, that is taken up and put on display’ (129) (although he does mention Duchamp in another context). Often, in introductory aesthetic courses, the issue of how to define art versus non-art, and much of contemporary art’s challenge for this issue is not understood by students until they become familiar with some of the more interesting examples of contemporary art. Many students of aesthetics have little or no familiarity with contemporary art. Townsend makes the mistake of writing as if they do. On the other hand, in discussing the relation of works of art to critics, he cites Lawrence Durrell (159) in discussing an example. There seems to be no rationale for the citing of some artists and not others. A similar problem arises when some philosophical theories are introduced. Some philosophers are mentioned in connection with some theories, but in other cases, theories are described without attaching them to a particular philosopher. The institutional theory of art is described initially, for example, without mentioning George Dickie (51). Or when mention is made of theories that maintain that, ‘The original, creative act was in the mind of the artist, who might or might not choose to make it public’ (89), no mention is made as to which philosophers he is alluding. Jean Paul Sartre is one who comes to mind. To cite another such example, in discussing the claim that an artist’s intentions are irrelevant to aesthetics, he fails again to cite a reference, such as to William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley.
1998 © Deborah Fitzgerald