Kathleen Higgins, ed., Aesthetics in Perspective (Harcourt Brace, 1996)
Reviewed by Albert Hayward
One of the virtues which Kathleen Higgins claims for this rich and varied collection is the ample inclusion of material from outside the mainstream of academic aesthetics, or as she terms it, “the high art tradition of the West.” Indeed a brief perusal of the contents of her recently published anthology will easily confirm this. In addition to nearly one hundred pages of readings on aesthetic themes and issues from nine “non-Western” cultures (African, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Islamic, Papuan, Aztec, Navaho, and indigenous Latin American), she has interspersed pieces from popular and journalistic writings throughout the book’s four main divisions. While the general category of aesthetics brings a certain unity to this eight hundred page collection of over one hundred readings, one might say that the book’s theme is to highlight the changes that the discipline has undergone in the latter half of the twentieth century. For the book is also a multidisciplinary reader, a selection of feminist criticism, a primer on popular culture, a repository of classical texts, and a representative sample of the central literature of analytic aesthetics.
With so many pieces in the volume it would be impossible to offer even the briefest comment on each. Instead I will remark on the book’s main divisions and identify a few of the more interesting, challenging and even puzzling pieces, and how they were received by my students in a class just completed.
In its organization the book appears to offer something to every interest. In addition to a multicultural component it contains useful and accessible readings on movements and ideologies which challenge traditional conceptions of aesthetics. For example, Jenene J. Allison’s “Deconstruction and the Energizer Bunny Rabbit” engagingly conveys in a few pages the central ideas and techniques of deconstruction. Leo Marx’s Fine essay “Huck at 100” is model of sensitivity and clear thinking, and is recommended to all who see racism and racial issues in the arts as simple and one-dimensional. There is unevenness in the pieces concerned with sexism and gender issues. Linda Nochlin’s investigation into the social and institutional barriers to women’s participation in the arts, “Why Are There No Great Women Artist’s?,” is a work of sound scholarship that deserves to be read by students in many disciplines. On the other hand the point of María Lugnes’ “Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception” is never made clear. It presents itself as an attempt to articulate and account for the experience of being an outsider (nonwhite, nonmale) in a culture (the U.S.) where one’s identity is typically measured by how far one departs from mainstream stereotypes. Yet the author is so intent on conveying the confusion and disconnectedness of her own experience that it is diffcult to recognize what she calls her “loving solution” to the problem of being an outsider.
Most welcome is a section devoted to the identification and analysis of aesthetic qualities in everyday experience. The essays span a wide range, from John Dewey’s classic characterization of the dynamic, rhythmic and telic qualities of lived experience, to Janet McCracken’s sober advice on the importance of structuring and arranging the elements of one’s “domestic aesthetic,” to Robert C. Solomon’s pungent proposal of an “inferiority theory” of humor. Their common theme seems to be that quiet, reflective, sensitive awareness of life’s nearest and most humble experiences is essential to both moral and aesthetic maturity.
No comprehensive anthology can omit the classics in its field, and Higgins obliges by including selections from Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Nietzsche in a section entitled “What Is Beauty and Where Has It Gone?” Most students however will find these writings daunting if not inaccessible. Try, for example, explaining to them the meaning of Michael Joyce’s translation of Diotima’s remark that eros is the desire “to bring forth upon the beautiful, both in body and in soul.”
Arthur Danto’s “The Artworld,’ a classic by now, opens the section on “What Is Art?” It is followed by Morris Weitz’ plea that art is an open concept, and George Dickie’s reply in which he lays out the institutional theory. None of this grabs students as much as Timothy Binkley’s “Piece: Contra Aesthetics,” in which he jauntingly declares that the work of art is the gesture which makes the piece. This seems to makes sense to them. Walter Benjamin’s warning about the evils of mechanical reproduction however comes far too late in the century to impress, and in “The Affecting Presence” Robert Plant Armstrong trails off into abstractions about works of art as nodes of feeling in the medium of culture. Though carefully crafted and interesting, students will snore through this one. For more traditionally minded aestheticians there is Plato pressing the case against the artists, Edward Bullough and George Dickie on aesthetic experience, Roger Fry and Eduard Hanslick on formalism, and Langer, Collingwood, Bell and Hospers on expression. There is also Tolstoy and John Berger, and Milan Kundera’s pointed little observation of why kitsch will never be art.
Three of the book’s most thought-provoking pieces emerge from the milieu of analytic aesthetics and have important implications for our understanding of contemporary art and the role of art in the contemporary world. Alexander Nehamas’ “Plato and the Mass Media” perceptively reveals similarities between Plato’s attacks on poetry and today’s oft heard polemics against television. History has misinterpreted Plato, Nehamas says, by reading him as condemning the fine arts when in fact his denunciations were directed against the popular arts which, very much like today’s television, have the “magic” to move and disturb people. Television, Nehamas has the courage to say, is “literally an art which has not yet become art.” On a related theme Liza Mundy’s “The New Critics” urges perspective and caution toward the recent phenomenon of campus censorship of art on grounds of “offensiveness.” The widening use of this all-purpose indictment is symptomatic, she suggests, of deeper cultural ills: career-oriented education, increasing stratiWcation of the economy, a powerful consumer mentality. If you want to turn up the volume in the campus wars, try suggesting that art should be provocative and unsettling and see how quickly students will find your position “offensive.” Finally, in “Understanding Performance Art” Thomas Heyd explains how perhaps more than any of the other arts performance art has forced us to come to grips with the question What is Art? By its technique of blurring the boundary between art and life, its use of powerful and ambivalent imagery, and its assumption of the role of being a public conscience, performance art can be an important moral force as well as an inoculation against elitism, stagnation and aestheticism.
Clearly this collection has a character of its own which will endear it to some while testing the patience of others. Purists will immediately note that many of their favorite pieces have been extensively edited to accommodate them to the available space, or to make them accessible to a mainly undergraduate audience. Instructors who must apportion the book’s resources to their individual needs will appreciate the informative chapter introductions, serviceable glossary, useful index, and appendices listing the readings by artistic medium and individual works or cases. Scholars will be pleased with the attention paid to documentation, the editor having thoughtfully identified sources, translators, dates and places of original publication, and preserved important footnotes. The half dozen or so discussion questions at the end of each chapter are noticeably general and open-ended, and tend to invite personal assessment or opinionated response. As such they can only be used, as perhaps they were meant to be used, as points of departure or discussion starters, and not as exam questions or homework assignments. The fifteen-page bibliography of Western aesthetics contains standard fare, favoring complete texts over journal articles, and featuring what to many are the core texts of the discipline of aesthetics as it is taught in American universities. More interesting is the five-page bibliography of non-Western aesthetics which may help aestheticians to locate and gather materials which might otherwise be omitted from their courses. (I take the liberty here of mentioning one charming and useful omission however, Yi-Fu Tuan’s Passing Strange and Wonderful (Kodansha, 1995), which with delicacy and insight explores the development and importance of aesthetic experience in four diVerent cultures: Australian Aboriginal, classical Chinese, medieval European, and modern American.) In all, Aesthetics in Perspective is a most welcome expansion of the resources available in our under-appreciated discipline, and we are indebted to Kathleen Higgins for making it possible.
1996 © Albert Hayward