David Goldblatt, Lee Brown, eds, Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts (Prentice-Hall, 1997)
Reviewed by Jennifer McMahon
With their text, Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, editors David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown have succeeded in offering an aesthetics anthology of high quality. This anthology could serve easily as a textbook for courses in aesthetics as well as a general resource. The merit of this anthology lies primarily in its comprehensive treatment of artistic media and its accessibility.
With regards to its treatment of artistic media, one need only glance at the book’s table of contents to appreciate the diversity of art forms it considers. Rather than restrict their readers’ attention to those media referred to traditionally as the fine arts (a choice that would reinforce the conservative notion that only these media count as art), Goldblatt and Brown attend to a wide range of art forms, including some that readers might not initially consider art. By giving as much consideration to dance, photography, and pop music as they do to painting and literature, Goldblatt and Brown encourage greater receptiveness to art forms that might not fit the traditional stereotype and discourage close-mindedness when it comes to the identification and evaluation of art.
The second feature that contributes to the quality of Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts is its accessibility. The anthology begins by offering an informative introduction to orient its readers. It also includes helpful prefaces to each individual section that offer background information on the specific medium addressed as well as summaries of particular selections. With regards to the selections offered, the majority are excerpts from well-known works and authors in the field. While it would have been nice to have seen more pieces in their entirety, excerpting is a necessary evil when creating a collection of this sort. At least in Goldblatt’s and Brown’s case, the excerpting is well done. It preserves the fluidity of lengthier originals, conveying their essence in a manageable form. Overall, the selections are diverse, engaging, and designed to illustrate different points of view.
Though generally a success, Aesthetics is not without a few shortcomings. The first is its disproportionate number of contemporary selections. Out of the anthology’s eighty-eight articles, only ten were written prior to the twentieth century. Of those ten, nearly half of these “classical” selections are relegated to an appendix to the text and thus are not part of the text proper. Admittedly, the decision to restrict the number of classical readings and to confine roughly half of these selections to an appendix may be reflective of the editors’ desire to focus on modern media (about which classical authors would have nothing to say), as well as to “resist thinking of art as a whole” (ix) (a position classical authors tend to adopt). However, this decision is potentially problematic. Insofar as Goldblatt’s and Brown’s text is presented as a general reader in the philosophy of the arts, not a contemporary aesthetics reader, it can be argued that it has an obligation to be more even-handed in its selections. Such a reader is assumed to offer a chronological survey of articles from the history of the philosophy of art. It is not expected to be weighted toward the twentieth century with only a few articles from the ancients, a few from the 18th and 19th century, and more than a millennium missing in between. For an instructor wanting to offer students a comprehensive survey of the history of aesthetics, the limited number and placement of classical selections in Goldblatt’s and Brown’s text could be seen not only as unfortunate, but as misleading.
The second shortcoming of Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts is its limited treatment of non-western art. While non-western arts are alluded to in selections like Sesonske’s “Space, Time, and Motion in Film,” they are only the focus of two articles, namely Chernoff’s “African Music,” and Opuku’s “Dances of the Secret Society.” As both of these articles address African art, one can see that Goldblatt and Brown have left the rich aesthetic traditions of Asia, India, and South America without consideration. Admittedly, hard choices must be made when putting together a collection due to spatial constraints. As a result, it can be legitimate to restrict one’s consideration to the art of certain cultures. However, Goldblatt and Brown bill their anthology as one that is “open and inclusive” (x), and that illustrates “the panoramic… field that aesthetics has become” (ix). In the absence of any direct consideration of non-western art other than African music and dance, it is hard to see how the anthology measures up to its editors’ description.
The third and final shortcoming of Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts is perhaps less serious than the previous two. However, it warrants consideration due to the implications it has for the use of this anthology as an introductory level textbook. As mentioned, Goldblatt’s and Brown’s anthology offers a wealth of articles. Many of these articles address particular works of art. Oddly however, Goldblatt’s and Brown’s text is without a single illustration. While obtaining permissions for plates can be time-consuming and costly, it seems almost negligent for an aesthetics anthology to fail to incorporate pictorial reproductions of at least some of the works of art its selections address. The lack of plates accompanying text makes Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts less attractive as an introductory level textbook because it fails to offer the students who read the text the pictorial supplement they likely need in order to understand the selections adequately.
In conclusion, while not without flaw, Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts holds its own among the competition and deserves serious attention. As its editors admit, it isn’t the “definitive sourcebook” (x) of aesthetics. However, due to its comprehensive treatment of multiple media, its variety of articles, and its accessibility, it is definitely worth consideration.
2000 © Jennifer McMahon