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Review of Contemporary Philosophy of Art: Readings in Analytic Aesthetics
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John Bender, H. Gene Blocker, eds, Contemporary Philosophy of Art: Readings in Analytic Aesthetics (Prentice Hall, 1993)

Reviewed by Angela Curran

This anthology first came to my attention several years ago when planning an undergraduate course on intention and interpretation of art. The book’s focus on readings from ‘analytic’ aesthetics puzzled me. Philosophy has been changing in recent years to become a field that draws on interestingly different intellectual traditions and methodologies. This is especially true of aesthetics, which now draws on discussions ranging from analytic philosophy, to ‘continental’ thought, postmodernism, feminist theory and multicultural studies. Some would argue further that rigid distinctions between analytic and continental philosophy in method and issues have broken down, and that a number of philosophers, especially ones working in aesthetics, make use of sources drawing from both traditions. In light of these changes, I wondered how useful this anthology would be to me if it contained readings exclusively from analytic philosophy. In addition many of the students in aesthetics courses are art history, literary theory, and cultural studies students who are familiar with philosophical traditions or approaches such as postmodernism, deconstruction, continental philosophy, feminist theory, and so on. These students would therefore expect a class on intention and interpretation in art to include an examination of texts from these traditions. At the start, therefore, this anthology’s narrow focus on analytic aesthetics made me wonder if it would be useful for my purposes.

As a matter of fact, this anthology’s scope is not restricted to presenting debates within analytic aesthetics alone. The readings in Part I, which comprise about one third of the volume, examine what the readers refer to as the ‘challenge’ to analytic aesthetics from postmodernism. Here the editors, John Bender and Gene Blocker, have the novel idea of presenting in an anthology on analytic aesthetics an assessment of analytic aesthetics’ contributions to the field and its future based on postmodern critiques of the central tenets in analytic philosophy. In the second part, which comprises most of the anthology, readings in ongoing issues and new perspectives in contemporary philosophy of art are presented. This part of the anthology draws on readings and debates exclusively within the analytic tradition alone. Somewhat surprisingly, the anthology is the best in the second part, where the readings and issues examined are the more standard and conventional ones, for example, the nature of interpretation, the ontology of art works, aesthetic experience and art’s value. But insofar as the anthology aims not merely to present a selection of readings in analytic aesthetics, but also to introduce students to postmodernism, postmodern challenges to traditional analytic views on objectivity, truth, and interpretation of art, and an assessment of how well analytic aesthetics survives the challenge from postmodernism, this book, in my view, falls short of this more ambitious goal. I will have more to say on this a bit later. But first I provide a brief overview of the contents of the volume.

Part I is organized around the question. ‘Has Analytic Aesthetics A Future?’. The first chapter, ‘Taking Stock,’ is the editors’ explanation of analytic aesthetics and their explication of five central tenets of postmodernism. In this section, Blocker and Bender aim to show that many of the concerns and issues of postmodern philosophical thinking are not alien to analytic aestheticians, and in fact, that aestheticians working within the analytic tradition, such as Joseph Margolis, have much in common with the postmodernists. This discussion is followed by four articles, three of which (Richard Shusterman, ‘Analytic Aesthetics: Retrospect and Prospect,’ Anita Silvers, ‘Letting the Sunshine In: Has Analysis Made Aesthetics Clear?’, Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Philosophy of Art After Analysis and Romanticism,’) are reprinted from a special issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism on the topic of the future of analytic aesthetics. A fourth article, ‘The Eclipse and Recovery of Analytic Aesthetics,’ by Joseph Margolis, examines in some detail the rejection of various parts of the analytic canon by Beardsley, Goodman, Danto and Margolis himself, and the ‘recovery’ of the traditional questions such as the analysis and nature of art and culture, description versus interpretation, within a framework that rejects the foundationalism, while not ‘resisting altogether the siren attraction of a know-nothing postmodernism.’

The second chapter of Part I, ‘The Postmodern Challenge,’ begins with a further elaboration by the editors of the ‘challenge of postmodernism’ to analytic aesthetics and the impact of postmodern thinking on analytic aesthetics. The editors give a brief but useful history of analytic aesthetics from World War II through the fifties and sixties to its present state. Analytic aesthetics prior to the fifties saw its central activity as ‘meta-criticism,’ clarifying the critics talk about art works. The anti-essentialism of the fifties and sixties paved the way for theorizing about art in an expanded social context, as evidenced by Danto’s discussion of the ‘artworld.’

But even this new form of analytic aesthetics stopped short of analyzing art’s relation to the broader social, political, and economic context, rejecting such a project as outside aesthetics. Due to the enormous changes in the art world during the sixties and early seventies, cultural critics were in search of a theory to explain these changes, and so British and American ‘theorists’ of film, popular culture, and communications turned to continental philosophy and postmodern thought in particular as the theory of choice for understanding the art of its day. Hence the issue of whether analytic aesthetics, if it continues to see an analysis of art’s role in culture as outside the scope of proper philosophical inquiry, can be relevant to today’s discussions of art. The point of this collection of essays is to examine this question and to show that analytic aesthetics does, indeed, have a future and is alive and well despite, or perhaps, because of the challenge of postmodern thought. In Chapter Two of Part I, readings on postmodern thinking are presented, and in Part I, Chapter Three a case study is presented of the problems of ‘expression’ in the arts that indicates the evolution and expansion on this topic from its post-war inception to the current state.

The readings in Part II, which emphasize articles in analytic aesthetics that range from the post-war period to the present, examines ‘Ongoing Issues and New Perspectives in Contemporary Philosophy of Art.’ Chapter 4 of the volume, ‘The Particularity of Art and the Generality of Theory’ begins with a substantial selection by Kant from the Critique of Judgment. One of the nice things about this anthology is that in most cases the editors reprint entire articles or discussions, rather than editing down articles to the point where they are so truncated as to be no longer useful. But most of the Kant selection comes from the First Book of the Critique, ‘Analytic of the Beautiful,’ with only a brief selection from the Second Book, ‘Analytic of the Sublime.’ This is unfortunate, especially given the attention the sublime has received recently, especially by postmodern philosophers and feminist theorists such as Linda Williams. Many students find Morris Weitz’s often reprinted, ‘The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,’ which is included in this chapter, a welcome response to Kant’s aesthetics and a good anecdote for what they see as the harmful tendencies in aesthetics to search for an overly general ‘theory’ in understanding art. This chapter also includes the ‘newer’ response to the question, ‘what is art?’, by Danto in his piece ‘The Artistic Enfranchisement of Real Objects: The Artworld’ and Dickie’s original article on the institutional theory of art.

Chapter Five, ‘Art and Its Properties,’ includes the standard articles on this topic by Monroe Beardsley, Frank Sibley and Guy Sircello, as well as an important article not reprinted often enough, Kendall Walton’s ‘Categories of Art,’ in which Walton takes issue with the view that aesthetic properties are directly available to perception. Walton’s article is very useful for showing students that knowledge of art history and the context of production of a work of art are important factors in properly appreciating the work. Chapter Six takes up the topic of the ontology of art works and includes articles by Richard Wollheim, Margolis, Nicholas Wolsterstorff, and articles by Jerrold Levinson, ‘What a Musical Work Is’ and John Bender, ‘Music and Metaphysics: Types and Patterns, Performances and Works,’ which comment and expand upon earlier discussions of the topic. Chapter Six, ‘Aesthetic Experience and Art’s Value’ includes Dickie’s classic refutation of the ‘aesthetic attitude’ theory of aesthetic experience, ‘The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude,’ plus articles on this topic by Beardsley, Goodman, Danto, and another article by Dickie on ‘instrumental cognitivism.’

Chapter Seven, ‘Questions of Interpretation,’ and Chapter 8, ‘Evaluating Art and the Relativism Controversy’ contain reprints of some classic articles on this topic , such as Arnold Isenberg’s ‘Critical Communication’ and Monroe Beardsley’s ‘The Testability of an Interpretation,’ and his ‘The Refutation of Relativism.’ Chapter Ten contains articles on a topic often neglected in aesthetics textbooks, the topic of knowing the world through art. I can’t help think, however, that an examination of these issues is greatly enhanced when the views not only of analytic philosophers are examined, but also those philosophers with other approaches, such as continental philosophy, are considered as well. This is especially true of the topics of interpreting and evaluating art, where thinkers like Foucault and Barthes agree with Beardsley’s conclusion that intentions are irrelevant for interpreting a work of art, but obviously approach this topic from a very different (to say the least) philosophical perspective.

This brings me back to the question I began with: how useful is this volume if the articles selected are drawn mainly from the analytic tradition, and what can be the rationale for this selection procedure, given that a volume with such a narrow focus cannot claim to give students a broad based introduction to the current debates in the field? In some ways it seems like the editors want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to acknowledge postmodern philosophy as making an important challenge to the business-as-usual approach of analytic philosophy. They say that, ‘there is no reason to deny a distinct overlap between the identifiable currents now present in analytic aesthetics and the characteristics thought symptomatic of the Postmodern turn.’ They also recognize that if analytic aesthetics is to have a future it must revise if not altogether reject the old paradigmatic questions concerning the nature of art as a medium, and turn to an examination of the broader questions of art’s role in the larger social, ethical and political cultural context.

Yet the volume’s effort to introduce the student to an important debate in aesthetics between postmodernists and analytic philosophers is undercut by the minimal representation given in the volume to philosophers working outside the analytic tradition. There are articles by Hugh Silverman, ‘The Philosophy of Postmodernism,’ Jane Tumas-Serna, ‘Art, Culture, and Postmodern Expression: A Communicative Aesthetic,’ and art critic Donald Kuspit, ‘The Contradictory Character of Postmodernism,’ but these do not give enough discussion either of postmodern philosophy or how it can be applied to understand art. Charles Jenck’s discussion of postmodernism and architecture comes to mind as a useful piece to bring into this discussion. An article by Peggy Zeglin Brand, ‘Feminism in Context: A Role for Feminist Theory in Aesthetic Evaluation,’ (which, by the way, is the only piece of feminist philosophy in a volume of fifty-four articles) is included in this section on postmodernism, even though its style is clearly within the analytic philosophy tradition.

One would expect that, if the editors were serious about examining how postmodern thought does challenge an analytic aesthetic paradigm, original source material would be presented by philosophers such as Derrida, Lyotard and Gadamer (in the way this was done in Joseph Margolis’ anthology, Philosophy Looks at the Arts). But, as a matter of fact, the discussion of the central question of the first part of the volume, does analytic aesthetics have a future? is taken up exclusively from the point of view of analytic philosophy. In explaining their selection process for this section, the editors say, ‘because we think that self-criticism is generally more informed, precise, and aimed at improvement that are critiques from farther afield, the pieces included here all come from within the tradition, and a number of them were initially published together in the summer 1987 special issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.’ Perhaps the editors would reply that readings by Lyotard or Derrida would be too hard for most students to follow. But I know from my own experience using this volume in conjunction with a packet of readings by Foucault, Barthes and Derrida, that my students found them no more difficult than the articles reprinted from the JAAC, which really are aimed at a more well-prepared audience than the average undergraduate class in aesthetics. This leaves the reader thinking that all the really important criticisms of analytic aesthetics and its methods and questions have come from within the field. For this reason, therefore, the volume falls short of its goal to assess the future of analytic aesthetics in light of the ‘postmodern turn.’

There is a final point worth mentioning. Not only is non-analytic philosophy under-represented in the volume, so also is the range of issues and methods in analytic aesthetics. Noël Carroll comes to mind here as an analytic philosopher with a new approach to questions in aesthetics such as the nature of film as an aesthetic medium, yet none of his work is included. Further, the editors note that people interested in art began to turn away from analytic aesthetics and toward postmodernism since analytic aesthetics, with its adherence to metacritcism, failed to address the issue of art’s role in the wider social and political cultural context. If the editors want to argue that analytic aesthetics has gone in new directions, including that of examining art’s role in culture, then they need to include representative readings from philosophers, including feminist philosophers, whose work examines these issues. Instead the range of topics is limited here to the traditional ones, and the volume rounds up the usual suspects to discuss them.

While critical of the volume for these reasons, I should also say that this volume was very useful for my class. My experience is that the volume will work best for students who already have quite a bit of background in philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, and less well for a class with no previous philosophy background whatsoever. Despite these shortcomings, this volume remains a welcome and useful addition to the current textbook offerings.


1997 © Angela Curran

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