Gordon Graham, Philosophy of The Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics (Routledge, 1997)
Reviewed by David Woodruff
Gordon Graham’s book Philosophy of The Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics, is a clearly written text which takes a useful and sustained approach to the subject matter. He has provided several helpful features which make the book worth considering. Many prefer to use a text to augment a collection of readings when teaching introductory level material. Grahamís book is set up to do just this. His book is divided into three sections. In the Wrst section, consideration is given to questions of the value of art with the conclusion that the primary value of the best art is its contribution to our understanding. This conclusion is then applied to topical issues in the second section. The topics surveyed are: Music and Meaning, From Painting to Film, Poetry and Paraphrase, and Wnally Architecture as an Art. The concluding section briefly examines five attempts to define ‘art.’ The last chapter of the book is actually an appendix, where Graham gives a list of examples which the reader should be familiar. This is a handy addition to an introductory text which is often overlooked.
While the book does have some interesting and helpful features, the primary thesis of the book gives cause for some concern. In the first two chapters, Graham surveys other possible approaches to the main and underlying value of art. He does an even-handed and clear job of covering several theories with ample references to primary source material. After raising problems for other attempts to pick out the value of art, Graham gives his preferred view. His conclusion, what he calls aesthetic cognitivism, seems at first to be that the primary value of art is found in its ability to function as a means to gain understanding. He cites Goodman as a proponent of this view and follows Goodmanís lead in examining the arts as a means of understanding on par with science. A demanding task indeed! Grahamís stated goal of this discussion is to examine ‘whether and in what sense we can learn from art’ (42).
I have stated Grahamís conclusion in a somewhat tentative way, because after defending his claim against a variety of problems he takes a much less definitive stance. In the end he clarifies the view of aesthetic cognitivism as a means, ‘to explain what is valuable about art at its finest.’ (p.62 italics added) Even this seems to be mistaken. Graham grants that artís ability to bring about understanding cannot be a defining characteristic of art since at least some of what is widely accepted as art does not function in this way. In limiting himself to the value of art at its finest, Graham seriously limits the usefulness of his normative claim. A key move in defending his claim is the distinction he draws between understanding and truth. Even granting this distinction and judging the value of a work by the understanding which the work can provide, his thesis is in jeopardy. While understanding may be one of the valuable things about art, it is not the most fundamental. For example, compare an advanced physics or psychology text with the value of Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding, a work which Graham grants is an example of art at its finest. Graham would agree that the value of Bruegel’s work far exceeds the texts, but surely we must also grant that the text gives us a greater overall understanding of the world. Thus it cannot be the ability of the work to provide us with understanding which is the fundamental value of the work. We should grant that a work’s ability to contribute to our understanding is one of the values which we use in judging its greatness. But we may not infer from this fact that this value is the core value of art, whether or not we limit our examination to the finest works of art.
Perhaps the best test of Graham’s thesis is his success in defending it in the cases of specific art forms. His central claim in favor of cognitivism is that it is better able to account for the way we actually talk about art. (p.46) Graham grants that this is easier to defend for some forms of art, for example novels, than for others. Music and architecture are particularly difficult and to his credit he does not shy away from the task. Graham’s defense of cognitivism in the examination of music and meaning covers a range of topics from pleasure and expression in music to the distinction between representation and imitation. One of his central criticisms of expression theory is the reported limited range of expression music can encompass. At one point he indicates that the range of musical expression is limited to happy or sad and simple variations like somber or joyful. Ironically, through the remainder of the chapter he cites a full range of other emotions, for example pensive, and resources for conveying a wide range of emotion which composers utilize. In defending his cognitivist value, the understanding we gain from music appears to be most commonly if not exclusively linked to emotions. Even when the representation is directly linked to an event, such as the solitary slow toll of bells representing death, there is a link between the sound and the emotion it incites. Despite this, Graham’s overall examination of music is sustained by his clear coverage of a variety of issues making this chapter a useful aid in teaching. The same can be said for other chapters in this section.
Unfortunately, what the reader hopes for most, the development and application of the cognitivist theory of the value of art, is the weakest point of his presentation. The chapter on architecture purports to be a defense of the claim that architecture is art. Graham examines the nature of architecture and the debate between the formalist and the functionalist. His conclusion is that an adequate theory must accept that both form and function are necessary parts, and that this unity of form and function is to be viewed as an asset in examining architecture as art. It is hard to see how this can be extended to a defense of the claim that architecture is art, or even a means for assessing the value of certain buildings as art works. Graham builds on this claim by arguing that it is in this way that we may view architectural works of art as being ‘vehicles for the exploration and elaboration of certain human ideals’ (147). On this basis, Graham places the cognitive value of such structures at the top of the scale of values. As in the other chapters, Graham has presented a convincing argument for the notion that anything which is an example of art at its finest has cognitive value, but he falls short of establishing this as the pinnacle value upon which the object’s value as a work of art can be based.
In the final section of his book, Graham looks at attempts to distinguish art from non-art, by defining ëart’. Here again, his presentation of the material is clear and even-handed. Unfortunately, this section includes only one chapter, and despite it being the longest chapter in the book it is too short. Graham covers a wide range of approaches, including both more traditional views such as Bell, Kant, Weitz, and Dickie and sociological alternatives such as Marxism, structuralism, and deconstructionism. Some may find the brevity refreshing and the text helpful in keeping coursework from getting bogged down in an endless litany of theory and critique, but I doubt anyone will be satisfied by Graham’s treatment of their favored view. Graham ends the chapter and effectively the book with a rehash of his defense of the cognitive approach in light of the newly rejected alternatives.
I have been critical of Graham’s central thesis because I think it is incorrect; however, I want to conclude with important concessions to Graham’s approach. First, this is an introductory text and so Graham’s defense of his thesis is aimed at introductory students. At this level it works well. Second, the following consideration seems to weigh heavily in favor of Graham’s approach. Students divide into roughly two categories and each will benefit from his text. One category of students will be satisfied with what they have learned about the nature and value of art. These students, when encountering art, will ask themselves what they can glean from the work which will expand their understanding. Though I maintain this is not the primary value of art, this goal will serve these students well, giving them a reason to value art and some purpose for interacting with art works. The other category of more adept and aesthetically astute students, will be challenged by the strength and clarity of Graham’s presentation to dig deeper into aesthetics to find answers which are more satisfying. Graham’s text will provide them with a solid foundation for this further study. I often tell my students that what makes a philosophy text good is not that it gets things right, but that it deals with appropriate questions in a way that helps us think clearly about the issues. Graham’s text does just this for introductory aesthetics.
1998 © David Woodruff