Robert Stecker, Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005)
The challenge of writing an introductory text in aesthetics was to end up with something accessible to undergraduates, but philosophically challenging for all concerned: me in writing it, instructors and those same students in using in the classroom.
Toward realizing this end, the first decision I made was that aesthetics and philosophy of art do not constitute a single field of inquiry. There are two fields. There is the field of aesthetics. That came into existence in the eighteenth century. What organizes this field is the assumption that there is a special and important kind of value – aesthetic value. The task is to understand the nature of this value and of judgments about what has it.
The other field is the philosophy of art. This is a much older field despite the Kristellar hypothesis about the formation of the concept of fine art also being an 18th century event. Plato and Aristotle made important contributions to the philosophy of art even if they couldn’t know they were doing so just as Greek poets and sculptors were making important artworks even if they couldn’t know they were doing so. It is also a much broader and harder to organize field than aesthetics.
There are two fields, but they have become almost hopelessly tangled up by terminology (‘aesthetics’ can mean the philosophy of art), history (many of the founders of aesthetics are great contributors to the philosophy of art) and a once dominant theory that claims that the aesthetic is the key to answering all our questions about art. But they should be untangled because the philosophy of art took off when the once dominant theory started being challenged because people as different as Danto and Goodman didn’t recognize the art they loved in its precepts.
So the main theme of Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art is that there are these two fields – a part of the book devoted to each – and the whole book being a concerted effort to untangle them.
Part I is about the field of aesthetics and aesthetic value. There are two important developments here that get center stage. First there is the renewed interest in the aesthetics of nature. Second there is the attempts to comprehend aesthetic value itself which in recent years has crystallized into those that focus on experience (AE) and those that focus on a class of properties of objects – aesthetic properties (AP). I have no doubts about the existence of aesthetic experience. The problem is one of overabundance. There are many conceptions of AE and it’s foolhardy to say that one is the conception that captures what AE really is. One desideratum for me of a good working account is that it doesn’t privilege one kind of object as the chief source of AE, be it from art or from nature. Aesthetic value is found all over the map as some of the originators of the discipline of aesthetics such as Kant well understood. I am much more uncertain about both the existence and usefulness of APs. This corresponds to an uncertainty about the degree of objectivity and subjectivity there is in aesthetic judgments. If one is interested in realist and anti-realist views about aesthetic judgment, one should look at the chapter on APs.
Compared to the three chapters on aesthetics, there are eight chapters on philosophy of art. I try to cover many of the central issues, but I won’t give a chapter by chapter summary. I’ll just say that a reader will find chapters on definition, ontology, interpretation, representation, expression and multiple chapters on artistic value. The main job of part II is to untangle the philosophy of art from aesthetics. I use two strategies to do this. One concerns what I call central approaches to the philosophy of art. Though more are discussed, two are especially important here: the essentialist and contextualist approaches. By the first, I don’t mean any view that claims that art has essential properties. Rather it is more narrowly tailored to refer to theories – such as the aesthetic theory of art – that hold that the sort of properties that make something a work of art or give it value are unchanging ones that can be read off from the concept of art. Contextualism, on the other hand, claims that a proper understanding of art is rooted in the history from which works emerge. All the central issues that I just mentioned can only be satisfactorily resolved by reference to this context rather than be read off a priori from the concept. So the first untangling strategy consists of a debate between these approaches in issue after issue.
The second, if not entirely independent strategy, consists in arguing for a pluralist solution to many of the discipline’s problems. By a pluralist solution I mean one that claims that a satisfactory solution to a problem can only be achieved by appealing to a set of disjoint concepts. So one cannot understand what art is on the basis of one function (such as the intention to impart aesthetic experience), or what art interpretation is on the basis of one central aim, such as that of maximal aesthetic appreciation.
The pluralist strategy also applies to the concept of artistic value. Exactly half of the twelve chapters of Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art are directly concerned with aesthetic or artistic value. My main message regarding aesthetic value is that it is grounded in certain types of experiences and is present in nature and ordinary artifacts as well as in art. The main message about artistic value is that it is a composite of many simpler values. Hence the claim that artistic value just is aesthetic value also falls to the pluralist strategy if my arguments are successful.
Because artistic value is a composite of many different values, that makes possible what I call ‘interaction’. Interaction occurs when the presence of one kind of value affects the degree of another. There has been recently a debate about the one kind of interaction – whether the presence of ethical value – positive or negative – effects the degree of aesthetic value. The penultimate chapter investigates what ethical value considered as part of artistic value of an artwork could consist in, and evaluates the arguments for this kind of interaction.
The last chapter of the book, and the third on artistic value, returns to environmental aesthetics this time focussing on the environments created by architectural works and the works themselves. The chapter raises a number of questions that all derive from the fact that, while some buildings are unquestioned artworks, many are not artworks at all. So what makes one building an artwork and another not? Is architecture an art form? Is there a significant difference in the way we appreciate and evaluate buildings that are artworks and those that aren’t? To answer these questions one needs resources and I try to show how the contextualist and pluralist views developed in Part II, as well as those developed in Part I about the aesthetic, provide those resources. So for example, I try to show that while our aesthetic evaluation of all buildings is similar whether they are artworks or not, there are other ways we evaluate architectural artworks that don’t come into play for the non-artworks.
So much for describing the book. I now turn to its use in the classroom.
While Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art can be used as a stand alone text in an aesthetics class, I think it works better when accompanied by an anthology or a course pack. As the focus of my book is on contemporary issues, I would recommend a collection with a similar focus such as Neill and Ridley’s Arguing about Art or Matthew Kieran’s Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Because students will read papers arguing for positions I oppose, my text can be read as part of a debate, not just as a description of a debate. It then becomes far easier for students to enter the debate.
I first taught Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art in Fall 2006. A problem I faced that others won’t was how to handle the views Stecker expresses there. The solution was to handle them as any instructor would: in the third person. I found the book served three useful functions. First, it gave students a general framework in which to understand debates on more specific issues. Second, it gave them a clear overview of an issue so they could get a sense of the positions one could hold on a particular topic. Finally, it gave them arguments for a particular position on a topic, which they could compare to other arguments for other positions they found in the other readings. Because of the first two functions served by my introductory text, I found that students had a better overall grasp of a topic, such as interpretation, than they would if they only had the anthology. But I was happy to see that once they entered a debate, while some took positions similar to mine, others felt completely comfortable arguing against Stecker’s view in favor of others they encountered or created.
© Robert Stecker