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The Lack of Historical Perspective in Aesthetics
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Elmer Duncan

I know it is bad form to begin with a personal reference. But Campbell Crockett was one of my teachers during the late 50’s, and early 60’s, at the University of Cincinnati. He was, truly, a man of infinite jest, and a remarkably intelligent and articulate professor. Among other things, he was for some years a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. One of his early contributions to that journal was an article on “The Lack of Historical Perspective in Aesthetics,” published nearly a half century ago, in December of 1951. I want to claim that Professor Crockett was right, in 1951, and that the situation has not improved markedly in the intervening years.

Actually Crockett’s principal target for criticism was a claim, made by Eugene Veron, and echoed by Melvin Rader, that “traditional” art was primarily “decorative,” while more recent art is expressive. Crockett objects. He notes that more than two hundred years ago, Winckelmann saw Greek art as primarily expressive, not decorative (whatever that means, and Crockett argues that the meaning of the term is by no means clear).

The primary targets of my paper are much more obvious. What I want to suggest is that the discipline of aesthetics, in general, suffers from a lack of historical perspective. I begin by noting that most of us are philosophy teachers. As such, we are likely to be trained in ethics first, and later (if at all) in the philosophy of art. So it is natural to compare these two “value” disciplines of ethics and aesthetics. And I want to contend that this reveals a continuing lack of historical perspective in aesthetics. Later, I want to look at some specific areas calling for future study, and, finally, and briefly, I raise the question, “Why should this matter?” and give a very tentative, perhaps hesitant, answer.

To begin, pardon a rather obscure reference, but in July of 1837, Francis Bowen, of Harvard, published in the Christian Examiner a review of Francis Wayland’s Elements of Moral Science. Bowen praised the book but complained that Wayland, in his desire to lead his young students into the way of Christian virtue, had neglected the history of philosophical ethics. He wrote:

the history of ethics is in itself a part of the science. An enlarged and generous plan of instruction would be to lay open before the pupil the whole field, instead of confining him to a single point of view, and to trust somewhat to the powers of his own understanding for the separation of truth from error.
This claim, that the history of philosophical ethics is an essential part of that subject, seems to be generally recognized today. Part of my claim is that this does not seem to be equally recognized in aesthetics. A common way of teaching introductory ethics is to go through one of the many convenient historical anthologies. To say the least, this is not as often the case in aesthetics. Consider just the past four or five decades, from the 1950’s to the present. I suspect that during the 1950’s, anyone who wanted to do a course in the history of aesthetics would have had difficulty finding an acceptable textbook. Then, curiously, in the 1960’s, all of this changed. There appeared, during that decade, at least six good anthologies. The best of them was probably What is Art: Aesthetics Theory from Plato to Tolstoy, edited be Alexander Sesonske (Oxford University Press, New York, 1965); Sesonske’s anthology had almost everything. Also good was Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, edited by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Modern Library, New York, 1964), though the readings selected in this one were a bit overly German, with hefty selections from Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Schelling. Other offerings were Aesthetics Theories: Studies in the Philosophy of Art, edited by Karl Aschenbrenner and Arnold Isenberg (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1965), Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Criticism, edited by Marvin Levich (Random House, New York, 1963), Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics from Plato to Wittgenstein, edited by Frank A. Tillman and Steven M. Cahn (Harper & Row, New York, 1969), and Perspectives in Aesthetics, Plato to Camus, edited by Peyton E. Richter (The Odyssey Press, Inc., New York, 1967). But alas, the law of supply and demand did its work, and all of these are gone now. For many years, it has been difficult to find textbooks in this area. The good news is that these are two new anthologies for our use: Dabney Townsend’s Aesthetics, Classic Readings from the Western Tradition (Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury, Massachusetts, 1996) and Aesthetics, the Classic Readings, edited by David E. Cooper (Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997). Both appear to be competent, but somewhat modest offerings compared to, for example, the older Sesonske volume. While applauding these publications, one wonders whether sales will keep them in print. Finally, it should be noted that the last major general history of our subject to be published in English was Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present by Monroe Beardsley (Macmillian, New York, 1966), and that one, the sub-title informs us, was meant to be “a short history.”

In 1980, Social Research devoted a special issue to an assessment of the state of philosophy. Ted Cohen did the essay on aesthetics. Cohen gave an optimistic view, calling attention to some “excellent work” recently done on “the aesthetics of Hume, Kant, and the eighteenth century in general.” And of course he was right. But even in those limited areas, it could be argued that the historical work done in aesthetics has not kept pace recently with work done in moral philosophy. If I am right in this, what is to be done? Of course, we need more and better historical work in all areas. But what are some specific areas in which work needs to be done? Surely there are many, but I shall restrict myself to citing only two. First, I think we need more quality studies of nineteenth century American philosophy in general, and aesthetics in particular. It seems clear that the nineteenth century was a formative period in our national history and has been too little studied. The importance of aesthetics in that century was a subject for debate even then. Thus, in 1879, G. Stanley Hall gave a very negative assessment in an article prepared for Mind on “Philosophy in the United States.”

Aesthetics, so called, is taught in many colleges from various textbooks, such as Day, Bascom, Kames’s Elements of Criticism, and compendiums of art history. An immense range of topics, from landscape gardening and household-furniture to painting, poetry, and even music, are summarily treated, and more or less arbitrary psychological principles are laid down as fundamental canons of taste. The work done in this department we regard as not merely worthless, but as positively harmful. No attempt is made to explain the ulterior causes or the nature of feelings of pleasure and pain: and without museums, galleries, or even photographs, little can be learned of the history or principles of art.

Professor John Veitch had a much more hopeful view of the prospects for our discipline when he wrote, for the same journal, “Philosophy in Scottish Universities,” two years earlier in 1877:
Hutcheson’s first work, the Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, inaugurated another line of speculative thought in Scotland. It was one of the very earliest modern treatises on the subject of Aesthetics. Appearing in 1725, it preceded the treatises of the Pere Andre in France (1741), and that of Baumgarten in Germany (1750). It was the forerunner in Scotland of some very important and valuable discussion of the subject. One of the pupils of Hutcheson caught the impulse and the spirit of his aesthetical inquires. Adam Smith, a Glasgow student and a Snell Exhibitioner at Oxford, returned from the English university in 1748, at the age of 25, and began his public career by giving lectures on Rhetoric and Belles lettres in Edinburgh. These formed part of the material which he afterwards used in his brief occupancy of the Logic Chair in Glasgow,--1750-51. They were posthumously published under the title of Philosophical Essays. The taste for aesthetical inquiries thus awakened led to the foundation of the Chair of Rhetoric in Edinburgh, 1762. It was first occupied by Hugh Blair, whose lectures afterwards published, are well known to the world. This form of investigation has received great attention in the Scottish universities, since Hutcheson gave it an impulse. It was prosecuted in Aberdeen in last century by Alexander Gerard, Beattie and Principal Campbell. The subject has occupied a place more or less prominent in the teaching and writing of Reid, Stewart, Brown, and Hamilton.
Certainly Veitch was writing about Scotland, and the Scottish universities. But it should be remembered that the Scottish philosophy was dominant in American colleges, until (roughly) the mid-1860’s, and in many schools, much later than that. And the authors mentioned in Veitch’s essay were all read in America, almost as much as in their native Scotland. Hall was surely right that American schools, especially those on the frontier, were “without museums, galleries, or even photographs…” and this would weaken discussions of the visual arts. But this may be beside the point. In the early America, and through the nineteenth century, high among the professions were teaching, preaching, and Law (which could lead to political office in a democratic society). All of these require effective public speaking, or skilled oratory. This area needs more research, but I suspect (as in the cases of Hugh Blair and “Principal” Campbell) that what we now call “aesthetics” was most often discussed in courses in “Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.” The emphasis would have been on oratory, and perhaps literature, rather than the visual arts. And, once more, Scottish works and methods were predominant in America through, at least, the firs two-thirds of the nineteenth century.

I add what may be a trivial example. Many years ago, Thomas Munro published an article on “The Strange Neglect of George Lansing Raymond: Some Needed Researches in American Aesthetics.” Raymond (1839-1929) had, Munro noted, been a teacher at an Ivy League school for many years, wrote a whole shelf of books on aesthetics, corresponded with Santayana, etc. Yet, less than thirty years after his death, he was all but completely forgotten. Why? The answer would seem to be that Princeton, where Raymond was appointed “professor of oratory and aesthetic criticism” in 1880 by President James McCosh, was one of the last strongholds of Scottish thought. When America moved on to adopt German philosophy, and then pragmatism, the Scottish way of doing things was abandoned, neglected, forgotten. Once more, note that the reason McCosh hired Raymond was his expertise in oratory-and his Scottish methods of teaching his subject.

I offer a second, very different example of needed research, and will be brief this time. America’s Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism was self-consciously modeled on the Zeitschrift fur Aesthetik und allgemeine Kunstwessenschaft. That great German journal was edited by Max Dessoir from 1906, until the Nazi government forced it to cease publication during World War II. Like Erkenntnis, the journal began again after the war, but never regained its former glory. A simple look at tables of contents for the old ZAAK reveals a rich treasure of work by major scholars. Many of the articles dealt with the phenomenology of art. Others struggled with the notion-which sounds strange to our ears-of a “Kunstwissenschaft” (notice: it’s not ‘Kunst’ und ‘Wissenschaft’), not art and science but a science of art, or an “art-science.”

I know of few extended studies of the “Zeitschrift.” There are a couple of chapters in the Earl of Listowel’s 1933 doctoral dissertation, published as Modern Aesthetics, an historical Introduction. In 1993, Lydia Goehr did a marvelous, and very useful, essay to celebrate 50 years of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. What I am suggesting is that it would be wonderful to have some enterprising young research scholar do a similar piece on the Zeitschrift. The materials are available in many American university libraries, and the task would be richly rewarding.

One might have expected that this situation, this lack of historical perspective, would be corrected by the new, four-volume, Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (1998) published by Oxford University Press. And to some degree, it is. There are articles on major historical figures from Addison to Wolfflin and Worringer. But I find nothing to clarify the role of aesthetics in 19th century America. And though there are five articles on various aspects of the work of Theodor Adorno, there are none on Max Dessoir. Further, in her essay cited in the previous paragraph, Lydia Goehr demonstrated the fact that, in the mid-20th century, the JAAC made our discipline what it is today. We might, therefore, have expected to find essays on some of the major figures who were prominent in the crucial period of American aesthetics from, roughly, the 1930’s-1970’s. We do (as we should) find articles on Monroe Beardsley, George Dickie, and (two each) on Stanley Cavell and Arthur Danto. But there are none on the work of Stephen Pepper, D. W. Prall, Thomas Munro, Theodore Meyer Greene, Curt Ducasse, Van Meter Ames, or Frank Sibley. Looking back to Britain, though there is an article on the Italian scholar Benedetto Croce, there are none on the contributions to our discipline made by such British Neo-Hegelians as Bernard Bosanquet.

In the end, it may be said that we all know there are many historical studies that could be done, but why bother? Why is this important? I once thought it was enough-and maybe it is-to point to the fact that our young people today have away of saying that to understand someone is to know where he/she is “coming from.”

If not, there may be another way. For more than thirty years now, George Dickie has been struggling with some version or other of the institutional” theory of art. In an early version of that theory (1974), Dickie put matters this way, “a work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).” I’ve always thought Dickie’s view paradoxical, in a sense. On the one hand, it was easy to criticize (as many did). We might say, for example, that a university can confer status (a Ph.D., for example), but how can the “artworld” confer status, and can just anybody act on behalf of this institution? It was easy to be critical, but there remained the nagging feeling that there was something right about Dickie’s view, i.e., being an art work does seem to have some connection with being placed on display, on a pedestal, in a museum, etc. Under criticism, Dickie abandoned the notions of status conferring and acting on behalf of an institution. Instead, he now says: “The later version claims (as does the earlier version) that works of art are art as the result of the position or place they occupy with in an established practice, namely, the artworld.” I have been tempted to write an essay against this later version, tentatively entitled “Say It Ain’t So, George!” protesting the fact that Dickie has now given up a controversial and intellectually challenging view in favor of one far less interesting. Nevertheless, he may have given us, in this information, the truth that is to be found in the institutional theory. It does seem just common sense (and I know the matter is more complicated than this) that we tell the difference between cats and dogs by seeing that one has physical characteristics that the other lacks. But we cannot distinguish art objects from other things in that way. Art objects can only be defined in terms of some sort of practice, institution, or history.

We come full circle, and are left with the conviction that Campbell Crockett said it better, better, at least, than I can. Near the end of his 1951 essay there is a paragraph that, given what has been done in the years since, I have trouble believing was written almost fifty years ago. Crockett wrote:
I suggest that the word art denotes a unique historical phenomenon. We should consider the possibility that art is not capable of definition in the traditional sense. I am not asserting that this phenomenon is nothing more I suggest that the word art denotes a unique historical phenomenon. We should than an aggregate of diverse and heterogeneous objects and activities. But I am asserting that historical perspective is indispensable to discernment of patterns displayed by this phenomenon. There is an arbitrary element in my procedure, and I wish to be certain that it is not concealed. An examination of what those of the past and present have regarded as art convince me that art is a unique historical phenomenon.
That seems right enough to me. I only add that if Crockett is right in this, then the careful study of the history of our discipline, this “examination of what those of the past and present have regarded as art”, and why they have so regarded it, is part and parcel of who we are as philosophers and an essential part of what we are about. I conclude that what Bowen said about moral philosophy, “that the history of our ‘subject’ is itself a part of the science,” is equally true of the philosophy of art.



2000 © Elmer Duncan

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