John Andrew Fisher, Reflecting on Art (Mayfield, 1993)
Reviewed by Jennifer Judkins
One of our graduate assistants in conducting here at UCLA grabbed this book off my desk and said, “John Fisher? I had a class called Philosophy and the Arts with him when I was a freshman at Boulder. It was one of the most important classes I’ve ever taken. Period. A perfect beginning to college. And I’ll always remember the meaning of the word ‘paradigm.’”
Reflecting on Art is intended for undergraduates, and is greatly enriched by Fisher”s years of experience in teaching this course and by his wide-ranging philosophical acuity in both the visual arts and music. He takes a slightly different slant than other texts on aesthetics, adding topics sometimes left untouched, such as public support for the arts, art versus craft, and art and morality. Early philosophical questions such as “What is art?” are closely followed by such practical inquiries as “Who should pay for it?”
As Fisher states, this textbook “provides more than enough material for a one-semester introduction to the philosophy of art.” There are eleven color plates and numerous black and white illustrations, all chosen with a careful eye. Each chapter is fronted by an illustration or photograph and a thought-provoking quote. For example, chapter one begins with a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, and below it is a photograph of a stone flooring in a museum with various squares “missing.” These are captioned: “Mona Lisa (ca. 1503-1505) by Leonardo da Vinci , and Cuts (1967) by Carl Andre. So many kinds of things are considered art that thinkers have voiced frustration at what R.A. Sharpe terms “the apparent impenetrability of a concept of “art” that embraces both the Mona Lisa and piles of bricks.”“
Reflecting on Art is divided into three large sections, and in the first of these, “Why Philosophy of Art?,” Fisher treats issues of public funding, aesthetic value, moral content, and the avant-garde. Thus readings in Danto (“De Kooning”s Three-Seater”) and Dickie (“Defining Art”) appear before the discussions of mimetic theory, formalism, and expression theory, which are grouped in part three. Undergraduates will enjoy his initial plunge into some of the most unusual and “problematic” examples of art in the world, and perhaps will be more appreciative of the role of the aesthetic theories to follow. The illustrations are quite well-chosen and compelling. I gathered a small group of music students, and showed them the photograph of the performance artist Stelarc hanging naked over a street, suspended by eighteen fishhooks through his flesh. A sample of their reactions: “the shock value makes it art,” “that”s disgusting,” “well, I guess he”s expressing himself,” and finally one student who said he couldn”t judge because he was looking at a reproduction in a book of a photograph of the event and not the event itself. (I am discounting one response of “man, that guy was on big drugs!”)
The text itself is also set in an eye-catching fashion. In each chapter, as sidebars literally cut into the text, there are engaging quotes from such diverse individuals as Sir Edward Elgar, Nelson Goodman, Piet Mondrian, John Cage, and Woody Allen. Two samples, first from Richard Taruskin: “Modern musicians – composers, scholars and performers of every stripe – are essentially formalists at heart. And so are modern listeners” and from Marcel Duchamp: “The fact that [Ready-Mades] are regarded with the same reverence as objects of art probably means I have failed to solve the problem of trying to do away entirely with art.” All of these could serve as excellent jumping-off points for classroom discussion.
The readings that are sprinkled at the end of each chapter have enough length to give a good sense of their originals, and are selected for both importance and appeal. For example, chapter four explores art and morality, and the readings are from Plato (The Republic), Lance Morrow (“The Poetic License to Kill”), Oscar Wilde (Preface from The Picture of Dorian Gray), and William H. Gass (“Goodness Knows Nothing of Beauty: On the Distance Between Morality and Art”). In outlining expression theory in chapter eleven, Fisher includes readings from Leo Tolstoy (What is Art?), R.G. Collingwood (from The Principles of Art), Meyer Schapiro (“The Apples of Cézanne”), and Jerrold Levinson (“Music and Negative Emotion”). Throughout, topics which are not always well represented in textbooks on the arts, such as environmental art, music, and drama, are deftly engaged. For example, Fisher offers the example of J.S. Bach”s later, more abstract works such as the Art of Fugue in his discussion of musical formalism. He asks: what did Bach”s contemporaries think of this piece, which is non-representational and non-religious? He speculates that they found it puzzling, because “no doctrine of the arts that locates the very nature and meaning of artworks in form had been put forth.” He adds that the first appearance of these formalist doctrines authorized artists (first in music, then in the other arts) to create purely nonrepresentational works. It wasn”t that form hadn”t previously been a prominent concern, Fisher asserts. “What was new was the explicit idea that form is what art is about.”
Reflecting on Art offers a thoughtful overview of art philosophy, brimming with illustrations and readings, giving aesthetic pleasure itself in its design and “feel,” beyond its enticing cover. I have one small objection regarding the ordering of materials in the book, and this may have been out of Fisher”s control: the footnotes for the text in each chapter are placed after the rather substantial readings, making for a great deal of page turning for references. This quibble aside, Fisher offers stimulating materials and a strong academic content in a very exciting introductory text.
1996 © Jennifer Judkins