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Review of The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern
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Aaron Ridley, Alex Neill, eds, The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern (McGraw-Hill, 1995)

Reviewed by William Cowling

Consider the worst case scenario: your department chair has just been informed by the Dean that, for reasons unclear to everyone except the Dean, there is suddenly a pressing need to offer a summer course in the philosophy of art. The normally rational, clear-headed, patient, and friendly chair of your department calls you late on a Friday night – obviously in no mood to be trifled with – to inform you that since you were unavailable last year to teach that First Year Seminar in Critical Thinking, you had been selected to don the mantle of responsibility and collegiality. Never mind that it has been ten years since you last taught anything resembling a course in the philosophy of art; no matter that your current research involves a detailed study of Kripke on rigid designators. It’s late April and summer school begins in less than a month. The course is yours.

This disconcerting scenario raises a number of issues, not the least of which concerns how to organize and develop such a course quickly and efficiently without sacrificing quality. Happily, our luckless professor has at her disposal a marvelous collection of readings gathered by Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley, The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern. This eclectic compendium of essays ranges widely over the theoretical and historical visions of commentators who have written (and are writing) on the nature and purpose of art. From Plato’s Ion to Christine Battersby’s Gender and Genius, this anthology delivers a rich and tantalizing collection of writings from which a number of courses might emerge.

Divided into four major groupings, “Artists: Concepts and Creativity,” “Artworks,” “Audiences,” and “Art: Purposes and Perils,” the readings offered here gather the essence and heart of a philosophical project that, throughout the history of Western thought, has attempted to account for a basic yearning within human experience, namely, the desire to express the moral quality of lived experience as an aesthetic response to the conditions of human finitude. Neill and Ridley have managed to tap into this project in an unpretentious yet provocative manner. Their thoughtful and well-considered collection gestures in the most serious way towards an understanding of the nature of art, whether one construes art as a theoretical or practical enterprise. Throughout this anthology the editors’ careful attention to substantive issues is continually made evident not only by the choice of authors included in the readings but, and perhaps more importantly, by the particular selections chosen to represent the thought of those thinkers included in the collection. Thus we are offered an early moment from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy in which the crucial connections between the Apollinian and Dionysian “form of art” are made explicit and thematized, as well as those later reflections on tragedy in which Nietzsche’s portrait of Socrates shows us the “virtuous hero” as “dialectician.” Likewise, Neill and Ridley provide insightful moments from such writers as Arthur Danto (“The Artworld”), Stanley Cavell (“Aesthetic Judgment and a Philosophical Claim”), and Stanley Fish (“Is There a Text in This Class?”).

Nor have Ridley and Neill completely ignored the increasingly important voice of female writers. In addition to the Battersby selection from Gender and Genius, the editors also draw from the work of Jenefer Robinson (“Style and Personality in the Literary Work”), Susan Sontag (“Against Interpretation”), and Linda Nochlin (“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”). We could certainly wish for a larger sampling of work from female authors, especially feminist writers such as Hilde Hein, Mary Devereaux, and Elizabeth Ann Dobie. Hein’s essay, “The Role of Feminist Aesthetics in Feminist Theory” would have been a particularly apt choice for this anthology since Hein makes explicit the manner in which feminist theorizing about aesthetic experience entails a sense of jouissance that is lacking, she claims, in the male perspective. However, despite this not inconsiderable deficit, Neill and Ridley do manage to make the reader aware of several important areas of concern for women writing in the field of aesthetics.

The volume is greatly enhanced by the editorial introductions to each selection. In these excellent synthetic comments, the editors provide both the student and the instructor with useful insights into each selection and the way in which a particular selection relates to earlier commentaries. The overall effect is that of providing a unified approach to a rich and complex history of aesthetics without imposing a particular philosophical position that might distract the reader unnecessarily. This is not to say, of course, that the editors have somehow managed to distance themselves from the texts. This would be neither possible nor desirable. Indeed, one of the principal tasks of putting together an anthology is, from the outset, to choose material that fulfills a number of requirements, whether it is the desire to simply offer a number of standard readings within a tradition with which students need to become familiar, or, as seems to be the case with Neill and Ridley, to provide an additional critical commentary that brings together key issues arising from that tradition. The ability to blend these critical remarks with an appropriate attention to the integrity of the texts themselves requires an editorial commitment to do the difficult work of organizing the essays in such a way that they are allowed to speak for themselves. Neill and Ridley have managed this difficult feat with admirable aplomb.

For the harried professor who, at the last minute, must put together a course in the philosophy of art, as well as her more fortunate colleagues who have the luxury of time to prepare a detailed treatment of the complex issues one must confront in the study of aesthetics, Neill and Ridley have provided a the appropriate materials. For this we must all be grateful.


1998 © William Cowling

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