This year’s meetings, which took place at the Hotel du Parc in Montreal, represented aesthetics as an interdisciplinary activity, one no longer the purview of philosophers but instead composed of a family of modes of reflection on art and its history of philosophical, critical and art historical writing. The meetings featured presentations by philosophers, art historians, artists, museum directors, art lawyers, critics, historians and others. Since these meetings were arranged in conjunction with the Canadian Society for Aesthetics, that society organized a small number of its own panels.
Many of the sessions came in the form of panels on various topics, and running themes for the conference included: interdisciplinary reflections on the nature of art history, philosophical and art historical problems posed by contemporary art, questions of cultural property and technology, art and psychoanalysis, and the diversity of aesthetics.
Marcia Eaton, the American Society’s President, gave her presidential address on the topic: “Aesthetics: Mother of Ethics?” It elegantly explored relations between aesthetics and ethics by interrogating Joseph Brodsky’s claim that aesthetics is the “maternal source” of ethics.
The keynote address was given by the art historian T.J. Clark at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. His talk, “Willem de Kooning’s Suburb in Havana,” explored a single masterpiece by de Kooning in a way that posed de Kooning’s painting both as a brilliant elaboration of energy, power and elation, and viewed the painting as ultimately collapsing in formal emptiness, expressive vulgarity and “the failure of freedom.” Implicitly connecting de Kooning’s aesthetic “failure” to the failure of the modern project of utopian socialism, Clark’s massive, detailed and energetic presentation elicited a lively discussion from the society.
The theatrical center of the meetings was the exhibition of and “town meeting” surrounding the meaning of two paintings by the Russian/New York artists, Komar and Melamid. Organized by Michael Kelly of this year’s program committee and paid for by the Society and by a generous grant from the artist Mark Tansey (who also attended the meetings), the Society, in general a surveyor of taste, was itself surveyed about its “tastes.” Komar and Melamid then made a “most wanted painting” and a “least wanted painting” on the basis of the “information” it received from the survey. Apparently the society waffled about a number of questions, refusing to commit itself unconditionally and non-contextually to questions of taste, while also expressing some clear preferences (for the color blue, for partly abstract paintings, etc.). When the “most wanted” and “least wanted” paintings were arranged by the artists with one directly above the other and a thin metal band separating them, they exactly approximated the shape of an ordinary refrigerator. But hardly refrigerated was the discussion of conceptual issues at stake in Komar and Melamid’s gesture of surveying and painting, a discussion inaugurated by presentations by the sociologist Andras Szanto, the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto and the art historian Keith Moxey. The society interrogated Alex Melamid about the epistemology of such surveys and about the values of painting in accord with “popular taste” (with “the people’s choice”). No doubt the intensity of this discussion was a sign of the success of Komar and Melamid’s work as conceptual artists. Conceptual art was also featured in a panel with the artists Adrian Piper, Yair Guttman and the art historian Alex Abarro.
We organised three book sessions at the meetings: on Susan Feagin’s Reading with Feeling: the Aesthetics of Appreciation, George Dickie’s A Century of Taste, and Thierry de Duve’s Art After Duchamp. In each case the author responded to papers on their book. Stephen Melville’s panel “Aesthetics in the University: Aesthetics Among the Ruins” on a book by the late Bill Readings, explored aesthetics in the larger context of the American university in a state of transformation, fragmentation and increasing assumption of what Donald Crawford called “the corporate model.” Dennis Dutton’s panel was about art and anthropology while Gene Blocker and Eva Mann’s was about recent Chinese aesthetics. Stanley Cavell meditated about the difficulty of speaking philosophically about Freud while Madelon Sprengnether spoke (in another panel) about a “Freud for our Time.” Richard Wollheim spoke with great specificity of the failure of the project of aesthetic formalism, with rejoinders by Whitney Davis and Norton Batkin about how regions of art historical writing have conceived of formalism in ways oblique to Wollheim’s criticisms. There were also papers on Hume, Grice, intention in art and a number of other topics, suggesting that the field of aesthetics can no longer be demarcated either on disciplinary, historical or conceptual grounds.
Aesthetics, like art itself, has burst its borders and also returned to its complex sources not only in philosophy but also in art and art history. Neither those who do it nor the way it is done can be contained any longer. Nor can we any more presume to say as a whole what it is. The city of Montreal was a superb place to become (re)acquainted with that fact.