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Review of Aesthetics: Classic Readings from the Western Tradition
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Susan Feagin, Patrick Maynard, eds, Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 1997)

Reviewed by Gillian Parker

This is an excellent reader. It is packed full (yet remains amazingly kind on the reader’s eye) with fifty-seven abridged readings contained within six sections organized according to the following focal questions: Why Describe Anything as Aesthetic? Why Identify Anything as Art? (as the editors note, the debate over definitions of “art”, summed up in the question What is Art?, presupposes this question, and I for one always encounter justified bemusement in students when we plunge straight into this debate without any motivation), What do Artists Do? Can We Ever Understand an Artwork? Why Respond Emotionally to Art? and How Can We evaluate Art? The first three sections are each subdivided into two subsections: in section I, “The Aesthetic” and “Many Aesthetics,” in Section II, “Ideas of Art” and “The Arts of Society,” and in Section III, “Expressions” and Artistic Freedom and Creativity”. The order of appearance and foci of these six sections create an ideal template for a course of aesthetics.

As its back cover reports this reader is multicultural and multidisciplinary in scope; to my knowledge, this makes it the first of its kind and is its most compelling feature. So, for example, Section I includes classics, from among others, Clive Bell, Paul Ziff, and John Dewey in the subsection entitled “The Aesthetic,” yet the following subsection, “Many Aesthetics,” includes Kakuzo Okakura, “The Tea-Room,” Jun’Ichiro Tanizaki, “In Praise of Shadows,” Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Dionysia ,” Joshua C. Taylor, “Art and the Ethnological Artifact,” Linda Nochlin, “Women, Art and Power,” and Michael Roemer, “The Surfaces of Reality,” all of which introduce the reader to different determined aesthetics. Combined, the authors of these six extracts come from three different continents and their words are those of professional academicians (in this case none are mainstream philosophers), and practicing artists and writers (a biographical sketch of each contributor is included in the back pages of the reader).

From the point of view of the Anglo-American philosopher working within the academy, Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard have selected what would be considered orthodox and unorthodox writings in order to throw light upon age-old philosophical questions. The editors’ rationale behind this didactic strategy, in their own words, is that “By embedding such selections within philosophical contexts we hope to show that philosophy of art and aesthetics is enriched by specialist knowledge about a variety of cultures. By exploring the concepts they employ, we hope to foster greater reciprocal understandings about what in the Western world is called ‘art’, ‘artistic’, and ‘aesthetic’, and ideas that go by other names in other traditions” (pp. 8-9). I for one find this a wholly worthwhile mission.

The main introduction to Feagin and Maynard’s reader is particularly useful in orienting the reader, especially the teacher looking for ides on how to organize a class in aesthetics, but perhaps less so for the student with no prior knowledge in the field. However, he or she will find the editors’ cross-referencing of extracts useful when it comes to writing a research paper, for although Feagin and Maynard have organized their reader according to six focal questions, above mentioned, they rightly point out that their selections lend themselves to other themes. For example, someone interested in acquainting themselves with the debate over the distinction between art and craft will find relevant readings in Sections I, II, and III, wherein they will find, among others, John Dewey’s “The Aesthetic in Experience,” Abbe Batteux’s “The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle,” and Warren D’Azevedo’s “Sources of Gola Artistry”. Feagin and Maynard bring to the attention of the reader several other “hidden” themes that weave their way through the six sections, namely, the connections between art and culture, society, and politics; ideas about representation; the concept of form in art and aesthetics; and history of aesthetics; and the role of art in the cultivation of empathy and the understanding of others.

The short introductions accompanying each section of the reader are also very good and will be of use to the student for several reasons. They introduce philosophical concepts that may not be contained in any of the extracts themselves yet help the reader organize his or her thoughts when reading. For example, in the final section of the book, focused upon the question, “How can We Evaluate Art?” Feagin and Maynard introduce subjectivism, objectivism, and intersubjectivism. Given these categories, the reader will be better able to appreciate how the authors of the extracts often centuries apart (witness David Hume and Kwame Anthony Appiah), can be made to enter into a dialogue one with another. Secondly, terms that might not be defined in the texts themselves are defined in the introductions. “Modernism” and “Postmodernism” appear undefined in the selection from Appiah’s book In My Father’s House, so the editors do a good job of weaving definitions into their introductory comments. Finally, the editors do a wonderful job of cross-referring the reader to sections past and those to come. For example, Appiah’s postmodernism is contrasted with the understanding of aesthetic as disinterested represented by certain of the readings in Section I, “The Aesthetic”. Again in the final section of the Reader, the editors tell the reader that Meyer Schapiro’s claim, in the extract “On Perfection and Coherence in Art”, that evaluate aesthetic judgments should be taken as hypotheses, sheds light upon the multiple aesthetics represented in Section Ib, and is informed by Section IV, “Can We Ever Understand an Artwork?” Attempts at synthesis like these help the reader build a unified picture of the field of aesthetics.

A word in the ear to those who balk at abridgements: they are necessary in this reader in order to both to retain sharp focus upon the six questions posed and to allow a true variety of perspectives in answering these questions. A full bibliographic reference is included with each extract so that the student who wishes to read, in its entirety, the book or article from which it came will immediately know where to go; additionally, a select bibliography for each section can be found at the back of the reader which should give the interested student a push in the right direction. (Although I must mention that the bibliography loses something of the multidisciplinary and more of the multicultural flavor so characteristic of the fifty-seven extracts from which the reader is built).

Feagin and Maynard’s Aesthetics is for the philosophy student in the classroom, both upper division undergraduates and graduate students at the beginning of their post-baccalaureate studies; in addition, it would be suitable for the general reader wishing to acquaint themselves with the field of aesthetics and in so doing hoping to avoid inadvertently being inducted into any particular school of thought. I will be using their book next time I teach a course in aesthetics. Given the nature of the student body on my campus – a state university in California with an increasingly diverse population, several members of which are the first in their family to attend college, most of whom will not be going to study philosophy at the graduate level – the multicultural and multidisciplinary approach of Feagin and Maynard’s reader will make perfect sense in my classroom. Having said this, the reader also will be a great panacea for philosophy graduate students who have just come from having had a one-sided diet of undergraduate philosophy courses or a course only in analytic aesthetics.


1999 © Gillian Parker

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