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Review of Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction
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Noël Carroll, Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge, 1999)

Reviewed by Matthew Kieran

Noël Carroll’s book is an excellent work, ideal for use as a set text for basic undergraduate courses in analytic aesthetics. The writing is admirably clear, the nature and structure of different kinds of philosophical arguments are succinctly explained and exemplified and, as one has come to expect from Carroll, a wide-ranging knowledge of art forms and history is used to good effect in the illustration of points made. Given the nature and level of the text it would be churlish to quibble about whether this or that formulation of a theory is sophisticated enough or whether certain objections broached are developed or responded to fully. Indeed, bearing in mind the purpose of the book, there is little to quibble about in this respect anyway. So in reviewing a work of this kind I take it to be more informative to summarize the structure and content of each chapter followed by some general remarks about the book as a whole.

The book consists of an introduction and five chapters. The introduction is a pithy articulation of the nature of philosophy and analytic aesthetics. I can well imagine that, for those who teach introductory aesthetics classes which draw upon students from subjects where they have had no prior exposure to philosophy, to have a succinct articulation of the nature and methods of analytic philosophy and analytic aesthetics will prove to be a boon indeed. The primary emphasis is placed upon conceptual analysis and, more specifically, the search for necessary and sufficient conditions of application of a concept. What this amounts to is clearly explained, in terms of the identifying and differentiating features of the relevant category, in a manner that most undergraduates from whatever discipline should be able to grasp fairly easily. Importantly, Carroll goes on to point out that it is not obvious that every concept is amenable to such an essentialist characterization but even where the attempt may fail nonetheless it will have been of immense heuristic value in deepening our understanding of art. The critical method employed throughout the book is dialectical and, as such, is admirably suited to students coming to grips with philosophical argumentation and rigor for the first time.

The substance proper of the book begins with the first chapter on art and representation. The first part of the chapter considers, through various reformulations, the ancient idea that art must be representational in some sense – i.e. about something. Carroll outlines the basic thought first in terms of strict imitation and then representation, rejecting them both for the obvious reasons, but then goes on to reformulate the claim in terms of semantic content. Despite the initial implausibility of the claim, as a characterization of a necessary feature of artworks, Carroll does well in showing how and why one might find this a plausible and informative account – even with respect to many contemporary artworks, which are apparently meaningless and non-referring. Ultimately, though, Carroll concludes that any such account must fail given the nature of the decorative arts and the centrality of works in many forms, from music to architecture, which are considered art just by virtue of their aesthetic qualities.

The second part of the chapter goes on to consider the nature of representation. Here Carroll focuses upon the traditional accounts of representation cashed out in terms of resemblance and illusion respectively. The illusion theory is dismissed on the grounds that in the standard case we do not mistake the representation for what it represents and, at first pass, it is suggested that denotation is what is fundamental to representation and, given that denotation does not require resemblance, representation construed in terms of resemblance cannot be right. The conventionalist account of representation is nicely articulated and though it possesses substantial explanatory power its radically counter-intuitive consequence, that mere familiarity with representational systems is what renders pictorial styles realistic, is taken to motivate the neo-naturalistic theory of pictorial representation which, formulated in terms of an intentionally caused recognition of x in y where x successfully denotes y, Carroll ultimately favors. A suggestive section follows this on the nature and proportionate differences regarding representation in different art forms.

The second chapter concerns the inter-relationships between art and expression. Construed in terms of the intended transmission of the emotional states of the artist as refined in and through the work the expression theory of art is held to be more explanatory and comprehensive than construing art as representation. Furthermore it also enables us to account for why we think art matters – because it enables us to explore the inner world of human consciousness. But, for all the obvious reasons Carroll so clearly articulates, ranging from problematic cases such as conceptual art to the mere transmission of emotion via an artifact being insufficient to constitute art, this cannot do. The second part of the chapter, in keeping with the pattern set by the first, sets out to examine different theories of expression. The oft-articulated view that the ascription of expressive terms such as sadness and joy to artworks is essentially metaphorical is examined and found to be, as a global claim, false. For there are multifarious ways in which we ascribe expressive terms to artworks and, Carroll argues, some of them are literal. For objects which themselves lack mental states are nonetheless literally expressive since, by virtue of their configuration, they remind us of characteristic observable aspects of the behavior of angry, sad or joyful people.

The third chapter concerns art and form. The emergence of formalism is nicely characterized in relation to artistic movements at the turn of the last century with Clive Bell identified as perhaps its most influential spokesman. The doctrine of significant form is sympathetically outlined and formulated in functional terms and its strengths are given due weight, especially its apparent capacity to explain how and why we appreciate contemporary abstract art or anthropological artifacts in a manner continuous with our appreciation of representational art. Nonetheless simple formalism’s inability to take account of the aesthetically significant inter-relationships between form and content in representational works provides the most obvious stumbling block. Thus Carroll goes on to elucidate the neo-formalist response, according to which what matters is whether the form is appropriate or fitting with respect to a work’s content. Hence neo-formalism can recognize that a work’s content matters, but only to the extent it hinders or promotes the sense of unity, completeness or fittingness afforded by the work. Ultimately, though, neo-formalism is found to be far too all-inclusive a theory to constitute an adequate account of art. For many ordinary objects and actions we would in no way consider art exhibit the features picked out by neo-formalism, manifesting a relation of fit between content and form, as distinctive of art.

The second part of the chapter moves on to examine just what artistic form may be. For despite formalism’s inadequacy as an account of art per se nonetheless a large part of art appreciation is taken up with the form of art and design objects. Some are naturally tempted to give a descriptive account of form – the form of a work can be characterized just in virtue of describing all the relations among all the elements of a work. But, as Carroll elegantly points out, our standard conception of artistic form is explanatory rather than descriptive – we pick out certain inter-relations as significant, and leave others aside, in terms of the point of an artwork. Hence an adequate conception of artistic form must be functional. The artistic form of an artwork is the ensemble of choices intended to realize the purpose of the work.

The third chapter leads neatly into the fourth, which is concerned with art and aesthetic experience. The first part considers the aesthetic definition of art according to which artworks are artifacts whose intended function is to afford aesthetic experience. The notion of aesthetic experience is then cashed out in terms of two competing conceptions. The first is a content orientated account, whereby a work is intended to present unified, diverse and/or intense properties for our contemplation and the second is an affect-orientated account, whereby a work is intentionally produced with the capacity to afford disinterested and sympathetic attention and contemplation for its own sake. But, for the standard reasons Carroll articulates, neither conception provides the aesthetic definition with either necessary or sufficient conditions for art. Furthermore the evolution of anti-aesthetic art, at least prima facie flies in the face of the initial plausibility of the aesthetic theorist’s attempt to give a generalized and comprehensive theory of art.

Part two moves on to examine further the notion of an aesthetic experience. The affect-orientated conception, relying on the concept of disinterested attention, is ultimately found to confuse motivation with attention thus we have reason to prefer the content orientated conception. Aesthetic experience just is experience of a work’s aesthetic properties and formal relations. But this leads into problems concerning the attribution of aesthetic properties and whether we detect them or they are merely projected. Carroll suggests that the mere fact that we disagree about the attribution of aesthetic properties gives us at least some minimal reason to presume that aesthetic properties are objective.

The last chapter is a critical examination of the very project to define and identify what constitutes art. The neo-Wittgensteinian skepticism about the nature of such a project is elucidated, elaborated in terms of conceiving of ‘art’ as an open concept. Carroll, perhaps too emphatically for some, suggests that such skepticism was ultimately defeated by the capacity of the institutional theory to propose necessary and sufficient conditions for art compatible with wide artistic experimentation and the negative critique of the family method resemblance for identifying artworks as too facile. Nonetheless the best strict definitions on offer, variants of the institutional theory of art and the historical definition of art respectively, remain both highly controversial and subject to strong criticism. Thus Carroll motivates the importance of historical narration as a method for identifying artworks whilst making it clear that the adequacy of the account remains an open question.

As is clear from the above outline the narrative thrust of the book concerns the definitional project in analytic aesthetics complemented by an examination of the notions of representation, expression, form and aesthetic experience. My only reservation concerns the emphasis on the definitional project itself which, despite the ongoing literature, I happen to think is no longer much of a worthwhile exercise and I would be reluctant to teach a course which made it the central question in analytic aesthetics. But such a reservation merely renders it unsuitable for upper level undergraduate courses in aesthetics, where students have already done a reasonable amount of philosophy and some aesthetics anyway. I take it that this is not the target audience for the book; hence such a worry does not really apply. The only minor quibble I have is that it would have been nice when different views are introduced in the text if various proponents of that view were mentioned in the text itself but perhaps this was thought to jar the narrative flow and this problem is ameliorated to a large degree by the extensive annotated suggested readings at the end of each chapter. Students will also find the end of chapter summaries useful.

In conclusion then, the structure and topics as well as the level, style and mode of presentation are admirably suited to a first or second level course in analytic aesthetics. Carroll’s lucidity, engaging writing style and informed sensitivity to the target audience make this an excellent introductory textbook.


2000 © Matthew Kieran

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