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Review of Aesthetics: The Big Questions
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Carolyn Korsmeyer, ed., Aesthetics: The Big Questions (Blackwell, 1998)

Reviewed by James Shelley

Like its companions in Blackwell’s Big Questions series, this en gaging anthology sorts its entries according to the “big question” they address. There are six big aesthetic questions, it turns out, and therefore six parts to this collection: “What is Art?,” “Experience and Appreciation: How Do We Encounter Art?,” “Aesthetic Evaluation: Who Decides?,” “Can We Learn from Art?,” “Tragedy, Sublimity, Horror: Why Do We Enjoy Painful Experience in Art?,” and “Where is the Artist in the Work of Art?” In her introduction, however, Carolyn Korsmeyer proposes an alternative, tripartite scheme for categorizing these essays that, I believe, is far more revealing of this collection’s distinctive character. These entries, she writes, “combine classic pieces from the history of philosophy, contemporary essays that carry on that heritage, and challenges that depart from the assumptions and conceptual frameworks commonly adopted by philosophers in the western intellectual tradition.” It is the size of this third category – which Korsmeyer further divides into challenges emerging from within the western tradition, such as feminist challenges, and challenges emerging from without that tradition, such as the implicit challenges of Asian and African aesthetic traditions – that sets this anthology apart. When it comes to representing the challenges that face the western aesthetic tradition, there is, I think, no other general introductory anthology that comes close.

An examination of the entries that address the first and arguably biggest question of all – “What is art?” – will serve as an illustration. There are six: “The Live Creature” from Dewey’s Art and Experience; an excerpt from Richard L. Anderson’s Calliope’s Sisters; Arthur Danto’s “The Artworld;” “Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the Arts” from Rozsika Parker’s and Griselda Pollock’s Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology; “Zen and the Art of Tea” from D. T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture; and Karen Hanson’s “Dressing Down Dressing Up: The Philosophic Fear of Fashion.” Of these a full four – those by Anderson, Parker and Pollock, Suzuki, and Hanson – are presented as “challenges” to traditional western aesthetics. The pieces by Suzuki and Hanson do not, as Korsmeyer puts it, “directly” address the concept of art, but “indirectly challenge our ideas about art and aesthetic activity by broadening consideration of artistically important phenomena” (11). The excerpt from Anderson’s book consists both of an extended discussion of what he calls the “art” and “aesthetics” of Inuit culture and of a definition of art designed to accommodate Inuit “art” as well as the “art” of nine other non-western cultures. Anderson thus may be said to offer both direct and indirect challenges to what Korsmeyer refers to as the “narrowness” of the western notion of art. That narrowness is also the focus of Parker and Pollock, who argue that the continual and arbitrary exclusion of women’s creative activity (still-life painting and needlework, for example) from the honorific category of “fine” or “high” art functions to reproduce and sustain values and beliefs that perpetuate male dominance. This presumably leaves the oft-anthologized pieces by Dewey and Danto to represent the tradition under challenge by the other four: Dewey’s as a classic and Danto’s as a contemporary manifestation.

Traditional western aesthetics receives stronger representation in other sections, particularly the one devoted to tragedy, sublimity, and horror, which includes “classic” entries by Aristotle and Nietzsche on tragedy, and Burke and Kant on sublimity. It receives even weaker representation in at least one, the section devoted to the place of the artist in the work, which by my count pits Kant (here on genius) against six tradition-challengers. On the whole, however, the composition of the first section is not unrepresentative of the composition of the rest. In addition to the four historical figures clustered together in the section on tragedy, sublimity, and horror, only Plato, Hume, and Dewey make an appearance. Moreover, Danto’s is the only “canonical” piece of analytic aesthetics to appear: absent are the usual contributions from Beardsley, Sibley, Isenberg, Weitz, Goodman, Wollheim, Dickie, and Walton. Some of the resulting free space is given over to “traditional, contemporary” pieces not commonly anthologized elsewhere, including entries by Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, Ted Cohen, Noel Carroll, and Susan Feagin. But challenges make up the bulk of what is new here: these include feminist challenges by Carol Duncan, Peggy Zeglin Brand, Cynthia Freeland, Christine Battersby, Linda Nochlin, Hanson, and Parker and Pollack; post-modernor continental challenges by Foucault, Gadamer, and Bourdieu; and multi-cultural challenges by M. Msosa Mwale, Michael Baxandall, Bruno Nettl, Anderson and Suzuki.

Given the considerable overlap of material in so many existing anthologies, the appearance of an anthology with so much new material, much of it of high quality, can only be a welcome event. And there is clearly a market for a general aesthetics anthology that makes more room for feminist, post-modern, and non-western work: offhand I can recall three reviews of rival anthologies, each appearing recently in this Newsletter, that complain of the scarcity of such work. Students with little or no philosophical background, moreover, will find nearly all the essays collected here not merely accessible but inviting. I also suspect that instructors who do not have a particularly strong background in philosophy, particularly those who do have strong backgrounds in the arts, will find this anthology as teachable as any. The prefaces to each of the six sections, written by multiple authors, do a generally good job of explaining how their entries can be seen as responses to their big question, and of exhibiting the sometimes subtle connections between them. The multiple authorship, however, does lead to some unevenness in quality.

Implicit in the inclusion here of comparatively many “challenges” is the judgment that many of them (and many more of their kind) hit their mark, and that the tradition, as a result, has entered a period of perhaps unprecedented crisis. Has it? That polarizing question is as big as any of the six explicitly posed in this volume. It is tempting to regard it, in fact, as the big question that the volume as a whole implicitly poses by means of the other six: one’s answer to it will determine, more than any other factor, I think, one’s disposition toward the volume as a whole. Because it is obviously much too big to be addressed here (even if I had a much better idea of the answer I would give it), it is also tempting simply to let the above description suffice to impart a sense of this volume’s makeup, and to allow the reader to answer for herself the big question that a general, introductory anthology of that makeup implicitly raises.

But regardless of one’s diagnosis of the current health of traditional western aesthetics, one may still wonder whether the glimpses of the tradition afforded here are always sufficient to anchor the challenges that follow. The first section, in particular, prompts such doubts. As noted, the section’s four “challenges” reprove the tradition, implicitly or explicitly, for fixing on a notion of “fine” or “high art” that arbitrarily excludes “craft” on one hand and “low art” on the other. But what the section lacks is any sort of traditional presentation, let alone defense, of either distinction. Danto’s piece merely presupposes both distinctions. And Dewey’s is itself a withering attack on both: in fact, if Dewey’s assault on the art/craft and high art/low art distinctions can be seen as a classic of some tradition, it would appear to be the tradition which now houses the work of Hanson, Anderson, Parker and Pollock. If there is space for only one piece from the history of philosophy here, perhaps Collingwood’s defense of the art/craft distinction, as contained in Principles of Art, would have served better. As things stand, both distinctions receive such relentless prosecution here (in five of six entries) that introductory students will be left wondering not whether the traditional notion of art – the notion on which traditional aesthetics depends more than any other – is defensible, but how any intelligent and apparently well-meaning person ever could have thought it was: they will come away persuaded not merely that the tradition has been sternly challenged on this point, but that it has been soundly defeated. Most other sections, fortunately, do begin by providing a somewhat clearer target for the challenges that ensue. But at no point are the challengers themselves challenged on behalf of the tradition: tradition-challengers are always given the last word. These factors leave this anthology open to the criticism that it sometimes appears less interested in leading students to ponder the big questions than in making sure they depart with the right answers.

An anthology that paired the strongest evidence in favor of the tradition with the strongest evidence against it would have obvious appeal for many teachers of aesthetics, especially those of us who remain genuinely ambivalent about the tradition. That anthology does not yet exist, at least to my knowledge. In the meantime, the next best thing may be to pair this provocative collection with one of its more traditional competitors.


1999 © James Shelley

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