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Review of The Nature of Art: An Anthology
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Thomas Wartenberg, ed., The Nature of Art: An Anthology (Wadsworth, 2001)

Reviewed by James Shelley

Thomas Wartenberg began to think about editing his own anthology in aesthetics, he tells us, when he discovered that none of the standard anthologies adequately supported the course he wanted to teach (p. vii). The anthology he consequently put together is of the highest quality. But whether it will support the course you want to teach depends on whether the course you want to teach is Wartenberg’s – or at least one very much like it.

One common measure of success of a standard teaching anthology is the number of successful courses it is able adequately to support. It is to the advantage of such an anthology that it collect as many readings as its binding is able to bear, and that the readings it collects be capable of playing multiple roles within possible course narratives. If you think of such an anthology as a collection of elements from which the instructor is to build her own course, then you will likely think of The Nature of Art as a kind of pre-fabricated course – one that will require the instructor to add her own touches, but comparatively little else. The Nature of Art is lean and regimented. It contains comparatively few readings, and the readings it contains have undergone a comparatively high degree of cutting and shaping. But The Nature of Art does not aspire to be able to support comparatively many courses in aesthetics. It aspires to be able to support particularly well a comparative few.

All twenty-eight readings collected in The Nature of Art purportedly converge on a single question: “What makes something a work of art?” (p. xi). To each reading Wartenberg appends a short introduction and a series of five to ten reading questions, giving the resulting whole the designation of chapter. While each reading retains its original title, Wartenberg gives each chapter a title of its own – one that both suggests the distinctive answer its reading gives to the question of the nature of art and identifies its author. So the fifth, fifteenth, and twenty-fifth chapters, for example, have as their titles: “Art as Communicable Pleasure: Immanuel Kant,” “Art as Auratic: Walter Benjamin,” “Art as Feminism: Hilde Hein.”

The Nature of Art presents its twenty-eight readings in chronological order. Plato (“Art as Imitation”) and Aristotle (“Art as Cognition”) represent the ancient period. A treatise by Alberti (“Art as Representing Nature”) represents the Renaissance. Hume (“Art as Object of Taste”) and Kant represent the eighteenth century, while Schopenhauer (“Art as Revelation”), Hegel (“Art as the Ideal”), Nietzsche (“Art as Redemption”), and Tolstoy (“Art as Communication of Feeling”) represent the nineteenth. The early twentieth century finds representation in Freud (“Art as Symptom”), Bell (“Art as Significant Form”), Collingwood (“Art as Expression”), and Dewey (“Art as Experience”). Heidegger (“Art as Truth”), Benjamin, Adorno (“Art as Liberatory”), Barthes (“Art as Text”), and Derrida (“Art as Deconstructable”) represent the continental tradition, while Weitz (“Art as Indefinable”), Goodman (“Art as Exemplification”), Danto (“Art as Theory”), Dickie (“Art as Institution”), and Beardsley (“Art as Aesthetic Production”) represent the analytic. The volume closes with a series of selections representative of very recent theorizing about art: pieces by Adrian Piper (“Art as Fetish”), Hilde Hein, Dele Jagede (“Art as Contextual”), Kwame Anthony Appiah (“Art as Postcolonial”), and Douglas Davis (“Art as Virtual”).

I think that Wartenberg has achieved an admirable balance in bringing together these readings – balance, in particular between historical and contemporary interests and between interests in the analytic and continental traditions. Among his selections, I find no glaring omissions and several welcome inclusions. Particularly welcome are the selections from Schopenhauer (passages from The World as Will and Representation on the artistic expression of ideas and the special nature of music) and from Goodman (“When is Art?”). Both map out distinctive yet intuitive positions within art-theoretical space, both do so in crystalline prose, yet both have remained curiously under-anthologized. Also welcome is the selection from Kant’s third Critique, which skips over the “Analytic of the Beautiful” in favor of the later discussion on fine art. A steady diet of nothing but the “Analytic,” which contains next to nothing about art, is partly responsible, I think, for the prevalence of the view that Kant is a formalist with respect to art.

The inclusion of Hume’s essay appears to expose a tension within The Nature of Art. The anthology’s distinctive feature, Wartenberg claims, is the convergence of all of its readings on the question, “What makes something a work of art?” (p. xi). But Hume’s essay does not address this question. It offers an account of the nature of aesthetic normativity, not an account of the nature of art. It may be countered that there is a conception of the nature of art implicit in Hume’s account of the nature of aesthetic normativity. But in whatever sense that is true of Hume’s essay, it seems true of most any essay in philosophical aesthetics. Similar doubts can be raised about other selections. Do Plato and Aristotle confront the question “What makes something a work of art?” As Wartenberg reminds us, it was not until “the eighteenth century that something like our current notion of art came into use” (p. 29). But this can only mean that it was not until the eighteenth century that something like our question “What makes something a work of art?” became askable. And what of the readings by Freud, Benjamin, and Barthes? With what degree of accuracy can they be said to confront the question “What makes something a work of art?” I am not claiming that Wartenberg is unaware that some of his readings do not address this question. I believe he is aware. Why then include them in an anthology on the nature of art? The answer, I suspect, is that Wartenberg is also aware that the best anthology on the nature of art will be one whose readings do not all converge on the question “What makes something a work of art?” That is a question best not confronted in isolation from certain other questions, including those that Hume, Plato, Aristotle, and the others really do confront. Why claim then that each reading confronts this question? The answer, I conjecture, has to do with the very high value Wartenberg has placed on coherence in constructing this volume. There is a beauty in the way its readings seem to hang together – a beauty achieved in part by means of Wartenberg’s introductions (which are models of clarity and concision) and in part by means of the symmetry of his chapter titles. But the introductions and titles sometimes make the readings seem to hang together in ways they do not, and this may make you wonder whether The Nature of Art does not sometimes sacrifice accuracy for the sake of coherence.

My intent in raising this point is not to suggest that a teaching anthology ought never sacrifice accuracy for the sake of coherence. Nor is it to suggest that The Nature of Art has sacrificed accuracy for the sake of coherence when it ought not to have. I find it plausible, in fact, that philosophy courses fail for want of coherence as often as they fail for any other reason. My intent is to suggest something about the sort of teaching occasion for which The Nature of Art is best suited. It is best suited, I think, for those occasions that demand a particularly high degree of coherence – those, for example, on which the students, or the instructor, or both, have little background in philosophy, or aesthetics, or both. Indeed, for such occasions I doubt a better anthology can be found.


2003 © James Shelley

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