Richard Eldridge, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Reviewed by Henry John Pratt
I once thought that books whose titles contained the word “introduction” were actually likely to be very demanding – at least in contrast to books advertising themselves merely as “elementary.” Years later, that idea is borne out by Richard Eldridge’s recent monograph An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. This book is a complex, demanding, and progressively developed account of its subject. Though those looking for an elementary text or those with little to no background in philosophy ought to turn elsewhere, more intermediate and advanced students can find much of interest here.
Eldridge opens Chapter One by attempting to justify the need for philosophical theorizing about art. This is to be commended; few texts address the qualms usually felt by students in both art and philosophy about the usefulness of aesthetics. A philosophy of art, Eldridge argues, is required to achieve an understanding of the functions of art in society and the ways in which art provides us with distinctive, valuable experiences. The philosopher needs to say something about the identification of art, but should balance this task against that of elucidation of art’s purposes and import.
Chapters Two through Five present a treatment of the central topics of, respectively, imitation and representation, form and beauty, expression, and originality in art. Eldridge brings these subjects together by using each to draw out various “criteria” for applying the concept art. These criteria include (but are presumably not limited to) representation of a subject matter as a focus for thought, the pleasure taken in satisfying arrangement of formal elements, expressiveness, and original achievement. Chapters Six through Ten apply these insights and more to a number of other prominent and vexing problems in aesthetics. Among these are: How are artworks to be interpreted? How is art to be identified and evaluated? How is art related to the emotions and how are we to resolve the resulting paradoxes? What is the relation of art’s value to morality? And how should contemporary art practices inform our philosophy of art?
Eldridge’s book has a number of virtues. First, he does a fine job in motivating each problem he raises. Second, the range of this text is quite broad. Virtually every prominent philosopher of art gets his or her due. Third, many of Eldridge’s discussions are lucid and illuminating. Some of most notable include those on Aristotle’s views about imitation; Kant’s views about beauty and originality; the expression theories of Wordsworth, Tolstoy, and Collingwood; and Walton’s solution to the paradox of fiction. Finally, (a feature that should not be overlooked in a textbook), Eldridge and Cambridge alike are to be commended for producing a volume designed for maximum comprehension and scholarly use. The index and bibliography are exhaustive, and the layout provides ample space for marginalia.
This is not to say that I can recommend An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art without qualification. One of its strengths tends also to be a weakness. The book’s inspiring breadth combined with its moderate length lead to sacrifices in detail in some parts. Goodman’s account of representation, Hegel’s account of expression, and Kant’s theories of judgments of taste, to take some of Eldridge’s topics, are hard to grasp in any form. Eldridge’s presentation of these views and those involving a similar level of difficulty will be unlikely to enlighten students who have not studied them previously. The conflicts between breadth, length, and depth may also explain Eldridge’s occasional failure to explain central terms (as in the discussions of “psychodynamic” and “physiognomic-similarity” theories from pages 84-96 and “moral particularism” from pages 217-19).
One’s choice about how or whether to teach from this book will also depend to some extent on one’s acceptance of Eldridge’s philosophical agenda. Though he considers the standard introductory topics and offers arguments that go a considerable distance towards validating the philosophy of art as an intellectual enterprise, Eldridge goes well beyond introductory exegesis. His philosophical emphases may or may not suit one’s pedagogical purposes. Those who disagree with Eldridge’s conclusions may be able to exploit that as a dialectical tool, but others may find such disagreement frustrating and opt to avoid the book altogether.
The following seem to me to be the most contentious aspects of Eldridge’s views. Eldridge persistently appears to conflate the classificatory and evaluative aspects of art. For example, he seems to apply the criteria of art developed in the first half of the book in such a way that their presence is evidence not only that an object is an artwork but also that it is a good artwork. This tendency comes to the fore in Chapter Seven, “Identifying and evaluating art.” Here, Eldridge seems to lump together what some may view as two distinct problems. To his credit, Eldridge includes a justification of his stand, in the form of a reply to Dickie’s institutionalism. Because the process of art-making involves the intention to make or do something of significant artistic value, the normative and ontological aspects of art do not readily come apart.
Followers of Dickie are unlikely to find this point convincing. Even if artists generally intend to produce valuable works, this is not universal – one may well make art with no such intentions involved (as when a musician or actor is said to “phone in” his or her performance). The intention to make art is not the same as the intention to make good art, and there is nothing in the practices of artists themselves that forces us to conflate the classificatory and the evaluative. Artists are, in fact, well aware of when they are making art (in the classificatory sense) and when they are not, and this is not the same as their awareness or perception of the quality of their artworks.
Perhaps it is true that when we engage in a full examination of the nature of art, we cannot avoid evaluative notions altogether. But this is not unique to art; if we were to engage in a comprehensive discussion of the nature of beds, we would not be able to avoid what it is that makes beds good. Does this interfere with our ability to focus on the classificatory notion of the concept bed, or the ability of a furniture store manager to sort out beds from love seats? I think not. By analogy, even the pressing philosophical need to investigate art’s evaluative aspects does not bar us from separating that project from the classification of art.
Another controversial aspect of Eldridge’s philosophy is his oft-repeated “formula” that is supposed to capture the representational, formal, and expressive aspects of art. Artworks, he says, “present a subject matter as a focus for thought and emotional attitude, distinctively fused to the imaginative exploration of material” (p. 259 and elsewhere). The status of this formula is unclear until Eldridge addresses it explicitly in his epilogue (Chapter Eleven). Instead of a definition of art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, the formula is a Wittgensteinian criterion for calling something art: items that satisfy the formula are almost always art, and those that do not are rarely art. The criterion is supposed to capture something central to the concept of art because when it is not applicable and an object is art, or where the criterion is applicable and an object is not art, we demand a “special story” to explain why art status is or is not attributed to the object in question. In this sense, Eldridge thinks, the formula is to art as pain-behavior is to pain. Though pain-behavior notoriously does not always accompany pain, it usually does, and when it does not we need an explanation (e.g. the person behaving this way is very stoic, or she is a great actor).
Eldridge is wise to insist that he is not offering an essentialist definition here, but his retreat to the idea of a criterion may still be problematic. Any appearance of success the formula has seems to be a result of its vagueness. Enough room is left open that with a certain amount of cleverness, one could apply it to many artifacts and social practices without seeming to be doing anything “special” at all. The formula seems readily applicable, for example, to such acts as giving a political speech, or even to teaching a philosophy class. Moreover, there is a very large class of artworks to which the formula does not apply. Bad art is left out, because the distinctive fusing of subject matter to material in an imaginative way are evaluative notions. Despite the fact that teaching philosophy is not art and bad art is, in neither case do we seem to stand in need of any special explanation of why the formula applies or fails to apply. This is all very quick, but I anticipate that at least some other readers of this book will concur that Eldridge has not latched on to a distinctive aspect of art at all.
Disagreement with Eldridge’s fundamental conclusions is not necessarily a serious obstacle to teaching his book. Those considering its use should realize, however, that Eldridge’s standpoint may well be very different from their own. This brings us to the important issue of the work’s implicit philosophical lineage.
Eldridge is substantially indebted to John Dewey, despite the odd fact that Dewey is not mentioned in any of the section or chapter headings, much less in the title of the book itself. For example, the aforementioned formula emerges directly from Dewey’s thought (see p. 30). Dewey gets the last word, without critical assessment from Eldridge, at the end of ten sections, no fewer than four of which are also the ends of chapters, and he is granted eight long, indented quotations (much more than any other philosopher). His presence in this book is like the “bug” on one’s television screen indicating which channel one is watching: omni-prevalent, occasionally helpful and informative, but often distracting or downright annoying.
Dewey is an important philosopher who is too often ignored nowadays, but his continual intrusions here may prompt some teachers to wish for the philosophical equivalent of a remote control. Others, of course, may view Eldridge’s reverence for Dewey as a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere of stale aesthetics, and welcome the book because of it.
In light of all the foregoing, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art has two uses to which it may be ably put. First, whether one agrees with Eldridge’s general aims or not, one could use the more controversial aspects of his book instructively, to spark debate and discussion among one’s students. Second, because of its breadth, one could use it as a secondary text to provide information about and contextualization of primary readings. Students with philosophical experience will profit from it in these applications. However, because of its difficulty and strong philosophical agenda, teaching this volume as a standalone work or to a class of an “elementary” rather than an “introductory” level is not recommended.
2004 © Henry John Pratt