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Review of Aesthetics
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James Manns, Aesthetics (Sharpe, 1998)

Reviewed by Renée Lorraine

Professor James Manns begins his study by revealing his deep respect for tradition in aesthetics. Among the philosophers he discusses are Plato and Aristotle on representation; Hume, Kant, and Thomas Reid on taste (Manns has written a monograph on the work of eighteenth-century philosopher Reid); Bell and Fry on formalism; and Tolstoy, Tovey, and Collingwood on artistic expression. He believes that even traditional theories that have been discredited or abandoned may continue to expand understanding, and it is in this spirit that his survey is offered.

Aesthetics is composed of chapters on ontology, representation, form, expression, intention, and taste. In “The Elusiveness of Art: Questions of Definition and Delimitation,” Manns concentrates on the work of Wittgenstein, Arthur Danto, and George Dickie. He is inclined to reject Morris Weitz’s application to art of Wittgenstein’s flexible approach to meaning, in which art works would have no common, essential nature but only strands of similarities (like “family resemblances”). He notes with approval Maurice Mandelbaum’s contention that members of a family have the common attribute of a common ancestry, and believes it likely that all works of art-including radically novel ones by the likes of Cage and Pollock-are likely to have a common attribute as well. Arthur Danto has suggested that such a common attribute may be the works’ status in an “artworld,” or their relation to one or more accepted art theories or to the history of art. George Dickie’s “Institutional Theory” of art holds that an artifact must be presented as a work of art and accepted as art by those involved in the institution of the artworld. (While Dickie’s theory is based on Danto’s, Danto does not believe that public acceptance or attitudes determine what art is, but rather that public attitude is determined by the artistic status of an object. Danto’s position is not institutional but ontological.)

In a section on “Danto’s Infirmities,” Professor Manns questions what or whose theory of art would count in determining what a work of art is. No current theory lays an undisputed claim to adequacy. And he believes that a work’s relation to art history may be inadequate to determine its artistic status if that work is radically novel. In addressing Dickie’s theory, he believes that criteria of acceptance would be needed for an institution to confer artistic status on a work. Are all means of gaining acceptance equally valid? If so, citizenship in the artworld “may be too easy to come by to merit standing in line for.” One possible response to Manns’ critiques is to say that an artworld would consist of theories or individuals accepted or respected in the field of art, such as the theories or individuals involved in Stanley Fish’s idea of an interpretive community. Another response might be that citizenship in the artworld is indeed exceedingly easy to gain, but that there are better and worse citizens. I would be disinclined to refuse to accept as art anything intended or presented as art, even if offered by a child or an individual with no artistic training. Of course, the intender or presenter involved would have to have a conception of art that was recognizable to at least some people, and this might call for a common theory of some kind. In any case, although Manns thinks it likely that artworks share a common attribute or attributes, he does not presume to suggest what such an attribute might be. What is presently needed in this field of inquiry, he believes, is not one narrow conclusion but more breadth of vision. Since Manns believes that all works of art are likely to share a common attribute, I was hopeful he would take a stab at isolating one. But I realize this is a lot to ask.

In a chapter on “Representation,” Manns stresses that artistic representation or “mimesis” was much more than simple “imitation” for Aristotle and the other ancient Greek thinkers. Representation can involve some isomorphism or congruence with what is represented, and thus has an important relation to truth. Representation also has the power to move us, to influence our emotional lives, and thus can make us better or worse individuals. Plato held much poetry and other art in relatively low regard, because in the representation of nature, the natural forms copied were copies themselves of ideal Forms. Such representations could deceive our intellect and degrade a sense of social responsibility. Aristotle was friendlier to art and artists; artistic representation was not twice removed from reality in that form was not separate from but embedded in the material objects represented. Art could even improve on everyday experience in its ability to represent reality as it ought to be, and its ability to provide purification and purgation. Neo-Platonists have exonerated art in suggesting it capable of representing the ideal forms beyond their natural copies, while neo-Aristotelians maintain that natural forms themselves may be the models for representations of ultimate reality or truth. In the more “distorted” representation involved in much contemporary art, Manns suggests that aesthetic experience may thrive on the dynamic tension between the images presented and how the images would “really look” if depicted realistically. In any case, Manns believes that the connection between art and truth or ultimate reality in traditional representation theory makes such theory worthy of serious attention.

In a Chapter on “Form,” Manns relays that Plato valued measure and proportion in art, and that Aristotle valued unity and wholeness. He proceeds to examine more recent theories of “significant form” and organicism. For Clive Bell, “significant form” is form in art that gives rise to aesthetic emotion in a properly sensitized viewer. Manns feels that there is an unhealthy interdependence between Bell’s concepts of significant form and aesthetic emotion; both are defined in terms of the other. Manns questions whether there is “aesthetic” emotion per se (“chills are chills”), and believes an explanation is needed as to how significant form succeeds in engaging emotion. He also maintains that both Bell and Roger Fry went too far in elevating artistic form to a position of total pre-eminence, and in taking what may be a necessary condition of artistic success and attempting to convert it into a sufficient condition.

In organicism, Manns continues, all elements are eliminated that do not contribute to the completion of an action, or that are not essential to a unified whole. Yet he points out that it is often due to incongruities, deviations or inessential elements that works are so effective: true organic wholes may be “too perfect” to engage us. As an example of this perspective he discusses Leonard Meyer’s theory that deviation in music can prove interesting in its disruption of Gestalt tendencies toward good continuation and closure. It is the dynamic interplay between our formal expectations and artistic deviation that keeps art alive.

Among the primary problems of “Expression” theory in art is determining who or what does the expressing. In its fullest sense, Manns offers, artistic expression involves (a) an individual who offers some (b)physical manifestation that is processed by a (c) receiver within (d) an interpretive framework. Some philosophers have focused on the expression of the artist through the work, while others claim that only the work itself is expressive. There are also differences of opinion on whether anything is communicated in the process of artistic expression.

Thomas Reid claimed that art can express the spiritual interior of an artist, just as nature can express the spiritual interior of God. The artist expresses this spirituality through universal natural signs, signs that can be learned by virtually anyone without any special training. Leo Tolstoy believed that communication was at the heart of artistic expression: a feeling in an artist is recreated through art and then engendered in a perceiver. Art, he said, was “a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings.” R. G. Collingwood believed that the expression of virtually anything is effected through emotion, and that it is artists’ special ability to express emotion that allows them to communicate most clearly. Yet artistic expression (of the best art) is never oriented toward a specific goal, and the interpretation of this expression is always creative. Through the use of various artistic languages, the artist exteriorizes an ambiguous emotional instinct in creating art; the process of expression becomes definition. The audience then uses their own experiences to bring the expression to clarity for themselves.

Manns questions whether we can know anything of the inner emotional states of artists, and especially of ancients. He also wonders if it would be possible for a relatively normal person to understand the work of an artist with an unusual mental condition, such as Van Gogh. Due to such concerns, theories have arisen which emphasize the expressiveness of the work itself rather than communication of the artist. Under a section Manns entitles “ëWiser’ (?) Approaches,” he briefly discusses René F. A. Sully Prudhomme’s position (1883) that works can emulate expressive gesture, Suzanne Langer’s belief that music is a tonal analogue of emotive life, and Alan Tormey’s contention that statements about expressiveness in art “should be construed as statements about the works themselves; and the presence of expressive properties does not entail the occurrence of a prior act of expression.” Manns is inclined to disagree with this assessment; in a section entitled “Wisdom Renounced,” he argues that communication does indeed take place between artist and perceiver in the process of artistic expression. Chopin, he offers as an example, imparted sweet melancholy to certain of his works, intended for listeners to receive it, and often succeeds in doing so. All of us have had experiences in which we have been moved by art, and communication between artist and perceiver can take place in such cases through common knowledge of expressive properties. Following Collingwood, however, Manns stresses that artistic messages are always indeterminate, and there is always uncertainty surrounding what the message received.

It seems odd that Manns did not discuss, along with Tormey’s, more of the prominent contemporary views on artistic expression; still, he targets most of the critical issues that are currently being dealt with in expressionism. I’m inclined to think that everyone discussed, and Manns himself, is at least partially right (and no one, surely, can be totally right about artistic expression). Music can be “expressive of” melancholy, or something similar, through analogies between musical “movement” and melancholic expressive life (gesture, voice, etc.) even if the composer in question does feel melancholic, and even if she had no particular desire to communicate such a feeling. But surely Tchaikovsky meant to express his desolation (or some sort of negative emotion) in his Symphony No. 6; and even if this symphony were not called the “Pathetique,” anyone who knows anything about Tchaikovsky’s situation when he wrote this work is likely to get the message. (The message is all the more powerful because of music’s resemblance to expressive life; and these resemblances could express negative emotion even if nothing were known of Tchaikovsky’s situation.) Conventional and natural symbols in art (if there are “natural” symbols) may or may not reflect the mental state of a composer, and may or may not be communicated to the listener. As Manns rightly points out, such expression will always be highly implicative, indeterminate and ambiguous.

Manns is also concerned with communication between artist and perceiver in his chapter on artistic “Intentions.” While he grants that Wimsatt’s and Beardsley’s famous article on “The Intentional Fallacy” in the interpretation of poetry has been discussed at great length, he believes more discussion is merited. Wimsatt’s and Beardley’s argument, somewhat like Tormey’s on expression, was that a poem’s meanings are inherent in the poem itself, and that “outside” factors such as intentions of the author-even stated ones-are irrelevant to these meanings. (While a stated intention might prove true, that truth should be deduced from the poem itself and not the author’s statement.) Manns questions the possibility, however, of concentrating only on what lies “inside” a poem; inside and outside are often difficult to distinguish. A poem includes rules of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary which have a symbiotic relation to a poet and a culture with a past, present and future; a poem is an “amorphous mass, a jellyfish of nightmarish proportions.” And we can learn much about a poem from context and intentions that simply might not be clear, to an individual or a community, from the poem itself (though this is not necessarily due to deficiencies in the poem.) Context (both past and present) determines text. Manns points out wisely that the originality of a poem is often essential to the way the poem is conceived, and originality is an intentional concept. While one can never be sure of intentions, and intentions are always cloudy, ambiguous and contradictory, art is rendered most valuable through the “systematic pursuit of what intentions can be like.” When the umbilical chord between art and artwork is severed and the art work is left to lead a life of its own, “questions of meaning are meaningless and art ceases to be a serious matter” (124).

I think virtually anyone-even Wimsatt and Beardsley, if asked at present-would concede that artistic intentions and/or historical or cultural context would be relevant to issues of artistic meaning in at least some cases. Wimsatt and Beardsley believed that good poetry was at least in some cases the result of a sort of subconscious inspiration rather than a fully, conscious, highly rational process, an inspiration that the poet herself might not fully understand or be able to explain. Poets can also forget, use borrowed ideas not fully understood, lie, etc. A poet’s stated intentions should be evaluated very carefully. But as Manns points out-and others such as Jerrold Levinson and I have suggested-historical context is essential to what a work is, and knowledge of that context will increase understanding of the work. Manns’s discussion of the relationship of conceptions of originality and meaning in this chapter is particularly worthy of note.

Manns’s final chapter on “Universality, Objectivity, and the Claim of Taste” is probably his favorite, and to my taste, his best. In addressing the question of whether aesthetic judgments are universalizable, he begins with the “skepticism” of David Hume. While he discusses briefly Hume’s criteria for competence in the critic (lack of prejudice, practice, etc.), Manns concentrates on Hume’s belief that judgments of taste are not objective or universalizable-beauty results not from the detection of objective qualities but from the arousal of feelings, and good taste will differ with different humors and in different cultures. Thomas Reid reacted strongly against Hume’s skepticism, arguing that beauty is an attribute of certain objects (through it is more like relatively obscure “secondary” attributes such as color than primary attributes such as hardness), an attribute that has regular and predictable effects (for rational perceivers). Reid believed that there are “first principles” of taste as there are first principles of morality, natural principles that “permeate human experience to the core.” Unfortunately, Reid does not offer examples of any of these “first principles” of aesthetic taste.

While aware of the subjectivity and relativity of aesthetic judgments, Kant believed that common aesthetic experience could be achieved through the universally communicable pleasure generated by certain works of art. This pleasure is the result of common faculties of understanding, imagination and judgment, of bringing general concepts to bear on sensory information; and it is likely to be effected when one’s personal or individual cares and interests are temporarily put aside or transcended. Such pleasure is intense but disinterested, serving no practical purpose. Part of our appreciation of art is our appreciation of art’s “purposeless purposiveness,” its seeming “right for what it is, the way it is.” Art can also, like nature, invoke a sense of awe or wonder due to the its inscrutability . While there are different aesthetic abilities and sensibilities, this sense of wonder, the desire to understand or ask “why,” is fundamental to human nature and can provide a common aesthetic experience. It might be noted here that inscrutability, whether in nature or in art, can effect not only a pleasurable sense of wonder but negative experiences like frustration and confusion, experiences unlikely to be associated with artistic beauty.

Manns concurs that aesthetic judgments could be universilizable to the degree we are likeminded individuals. But he doubts that there is any aspect of human nature that is distributed generally throughout all humanity (and questions the possibility of a totally disinterested outlook). He suggests that we should not assume that there is one, collective universe of taste (which might be represented by a circle), but a plurality of universes, a collective of cultures with varying standards of beauty which will overlap to varying degrees with other cultures (which could be represented by various circles, some overlapping to various degrees and some discrete). The “greatest” works would be those appreciated by the highest number of artistic subcultures. No matter how highly one subculture values a particular work, it would have to earn the approval of other subcultures in order to qualify as great. These subcultures will change over time-Manns considers the possibility, for example, that the music of Bach might lose its supremacy if less dialectical “new age” music eventually becomes the norm. (It seems ill advised to pair “new age” music and Bach’s; in any case, the future will most likely accommodate both Eastern and Western conceptions of musical time and process.)

This model of accounting for taste is as plausible as any I’ve seen. While inclined toward a relativist position, I’m not ready to assume that commonalties of taste are completely arbitrary. Certain aesthetic preferences could be accounted for by natural selection, for example, just as a preference for sweet and fatty foods has developed in humans because such foods were needed but not plentiful. But not all individuals like sweet or fatty foods, some cultures probably like them more than others, and such preferences can be overcome by individuals or communities. Moreover, within any one culture there will be individuals who do not conform to the prevailing tastes of that subculture. These individuals might be said to have bad taste, quirky taste, or unusually good taste. It would seem in Manns’s model that the majority would rule in accounting for taste, but generally the best taste is attributed only to a select few. This problem might be remedied by suggesting that standards within each of Manns’s subcultures would be determined by experts such as Hume’s competent critics, or by an interpretive community.

While there was not a great deal that I found startlingly original in Manns’s book, his discussions of the roles of context and originality in interpreting works, and his proposed solution to the problem of taste, are lucid and valuable. He provides brief and admirable summaries and interesting juxtapositions of many traditional philosophies, ones I will be presenting to my students. And though I’m not sure that Thomas Reid deserves all the exposure with which Manns has provided him, he does serve as a good foil for alternate views.


1999 © Renée Lorraine

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