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Review of Arguing about Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates
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Alex Neill, Aaron Ridley, Arguing about Art, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2002)

Reviewed by Andrew Kania

Judging this book by its cover and other superficial qualities, one would suppose that Arguing about Art has undergone a thorough reinvention for its second edition. Its twenty-first century reincarnation, produced by a different publisher, looks and feels much more like a typical textbook than the original 1995 volume. The new edition weighs twice as much, and takes up almost three times as much shelf space. Inside and out, the layout is more spacious and elegant, and the paper is of a higher quality. However, a deeper examination reveals that the editors appreciated the warm reception the first edition received – this book is not radically different, or even more capacious, than its predecessor. The changes that have been made are almost all for the better, and, together with the very reasonable price, will ensure that Arguing about Art will continue to be the preferred anthology for introductory courses in contemporary analytic aesthetics.

The book’s approach, for those unfamiliar with the first edition, is to present a variety of “contemporary debates” in aesthetics. The editors, Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley, do this by juxtaposing two pieces that take more or less opposing views on each of a broad range of topics. So, for instance, we have Anthony Savile, in an excerpt from The Test of Time, arguing that sentimental responses to art, and other aspects of the world, are always self-deceptive and thus to be avoided. This is balanced by an essay of Ira Newman’s arguing that although sentimental responses may by definition involve misrepresentation of their object, such misrepresentations can be the most virtuous response, given a particular context. There are dangers inherent in this format. The book aims to present debates, and so the two readings on each topic (extended to three readings in two cases – see below) must talk fairly directly to each other. On the other hand, since it is an introductory text, one would hope for some breadth in the treatment of the topics. Here, Neill and Ridley steer an admirable course between Scylla and Charybdis. For most topics, at least one of the selections surveys various approaches to the problem at hand, or a range of issues related to it. Where the second selection is a direct response to the first, it usually proceeds by taking a wider view of the topic at hand than the target article, showing how considerations thought peripheral by the first author are in fact quite pertinent. This is an excellent example to set for beginning aestheticians, and beginning philosophers in general.

In addition to the articles, in each section there is a set of epigraphs, an introduction by the editors, and a list of suggestions for further reading. The epigraphs are, if anything, even better chosen than the articles themselves. They are wide-ranging (from David Hume to Fanny Farmer, including artists from Beethoven to Stephen King) and they are juxtaposed in thought-provoking and often hilarious ways. The back cover claims that “[m]any of the introductions have been updated” since the first edition. In fact all of the introductions to sections carried over to the new edition have been revised, and improved in the process. Part of that process has been shortening them – leaving the articles to speak for themselves while highlighting the main issues raised, the less explicit disagreements between the authors, and the relevance of the particular debate to other arts and aesthetic issues. The index is a welcome addition, enabling some preliminary cross-referencing of topics for students.

Reading lists can never satisfy everyone. Here, too, there are mirror-image dangers of being so comprehensive as to be overwhelming, and of being so tightly focused as to seem blinkered. The lists Neill and Ridley have compiled for the different topics are uneven. They range in length from thirteen items, on public art, to forty-one on art and morality. Perhaps because there has been a resurgence of interest in the latter topic, over half the references are to work published since 1990, eight since 1995. Yet in other sections, very little recent work has been added to the first edition reading lists. In the section on authentic performance of (classical) music, Peter Kivy’s and Stan Godlovitch’s recent books on performance have been added, but not Stephen Davies’, despite his being the author of one of the selected texts. Joel Rudinow and Paul Taylor’s analogous exchange on the authentic performance of blues is a nice addition, though it could have been included also in the section on rock music and culture. I think the ideal reading list for a book such as this is in fact short and narrowly focused, but annotated. A good teacher can always suggest (and the best students can find for themselves) more readings, or tangentially related ones, but a reading list that briefly describes what each piece argues, and its relations to other literature, is more likely to help a student structure his or her reading for a paper or an exam than a comprehensive bibliography. For instance, Neill and Ridley include in the section on rock music the exchange between Bruce Baugh and James O. Young on whether rock and classical music are governed by distinct aesthetics. But few students will guess that those three articles form a dialogue, and no one could know on the basis of the reading list that Stephen Davies’s 1999 article is a useful summary and extension of that debate. Annotated reading lists help ease students into scholarship by suggesting ways into an issue, enabling them to participate in a contemporary debate themselves.

Twelve topics are debated in the new edition. Retained from the first edition are the sections on authentic performance, fakes and forgeries, environmental aesthetics, photography and representation, feelings and fictions, sentimentality, and feminism and aesthetics. All of the readings on these topics are the same as in the first edition, with the exception of an addition to the section on photographic representation – Nigel Warburton’s “Individual Style in Photographic Art”. Two new sections seem to be substitutions for parts of the old anthology. Hume and Feagin on the paradox of tragedy have been replaced by Carroll and Gaut on the paradox of horror. Dewey and Levi on the idea of the museum have been replaced by a discussion of public art, centering on the controversy surrounding Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. This section contains a transcript of the hearing to decide that work’s future, and the symposium on public art from the Winter 1996 issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism – pieces by Hilde Hein, Gregg M. Horowitz, and Michael Kelly. Both of these substitutions seem apt. More venerable topics are replaced by similar issues more likely to pique the interest of undergraduates new to aesthetics, and the last vestiges of the history of aesthetics are removed from the list of authors – not a feature to be admired in itself, to be sure, but one that focuses this volume more sharply, and which can be easily complemented by the same editors’ anthology of historical aesthetics.

There are three completely new sections: Elizabeth Telfer and Carolyn Korsmeyer discuss the question of whether food (and drink) might qualify as art, Theodore Gracyk responds to Roger Scruton’s gloomy reflections on rock music in an essay commissioned for this edition, and there is an exchange between Kendall Walton and Michael Tanner on the relation between fiction and morality. These seem good additions, too; all six selections are quite contemporary, having been first published since the appearance of the first edition.

Only two sections from the original Arguing about Art have been completely excised, then – those on the colorization of movies and on musical profundity (though the section on rock music could be seen as a substitution for the latter). I am not so convinced of the wisdom of these decisions. One might argue that these days most students are not conversant with classical music, and there is not enough absolute music in the rock world, nor is it central enough there, to sustain a discussion of musical profundity in the classroom. But, given these reasons, it is hard to imagine the justification for the continued inclusion of the topic of the authentic performance. Though I think authentic performance practice raises some fascinating issues, it has not in my experience fired up students. Perhaps the editors thought the focus of the section on rock music is close enough to the topic of musical profundity that a separate section would have been superfluous. But there are important differences in the issues involved – the role of texts in musical works, to name just one – and, as the editors themselves point out, many of the topics selected are tightly interrelated. The two different perspectives these sections would afford on musical meaning seem as worthwhile as, for instance, the two different perspectives on emotion and the arts afforded by the sections on the twin paradoxes of fiction and horror.

Though the colorization debate was a fairly ephemeral topic in the history of aesthetics, and though perhaps it was not of direct interest to all students, I think it was a good example of applied aesthetics for introducing the question of the relevance of artists’ intentions to aesthetic questions. Of course, the authentic performance debate introduces these same issues, but because few students have much knowledge of the art in question, it can be difficult to elicit their intuitions about the general topic of intentions through the case of the performance of classical music. All students are familiar with film, and it is easy for them to discuss the relative merits of two excerpts from a film shown in class, one original and one colorized. So perhaps I would have kept musical profundity and cinematic colorization, and removed authentic performance and, well, asked for a few more pages? I am sure many readers will have different ideal conceptions of the table of contents page, but few will be unhappy with the actual one.

Given the scope of the book, I cannot hope to say even a little about many of its parts. Instead, I will look briefly at two of the new additions to the second edition. The case of cuisine is an intriguing one that I’m sure will get students talking about what can and can’t be art. Indeed, Elizabeth Telfer’s “Food as Art” alone raises enough questions for an entire aesthetics course. In under twenty pages, she briefly discusses aesthetic experience, the aesthetic definition of art, the objectivity of aesthetic judgments, three different senses of “work of art,” art vs. craft, improvisation, performance, interpretation, creativity and technical skill, the ontology of art, and evaluation! Her main conclusion is that food can be, and in some cases is, an art, but it is a minor art because (1) its works are transient, (2) they cannot have meaning, and (3) they cannot possess expressive properties. Moreover, food is necessarily a “simple” art, in that we cannot make as fine discriminations between tastes and smells as we can between visual and auditory sensations, and tastes and smells cannot be combined in formally complex ways. Because of these limitations, it is rational to forsake the aesthetic pleasures of food and drink in favor of those afforded by the major arts, and not to divert any government funding to the support of the art of food. On the other hand, since everyone engages with food on a daily basis (another reason there’s no need to fund this art) we have a chance to enhance people’s aesthetic experience every day, by educating them about the aesthetic possibilities of food and drink.

Telfer’s consideration of the ontology of cuisine, however, seems a little confused. She is good at pointing out its many parallels with music – recipes as scores, the skills and creativity involved in producing instances of a dish, the transience of those instances, etc. – and yet she concludes that there are no enduring works of cuisine. Fortunately some of these issues are considered in the next section, on authentic performance practice, so students should not be confused for long.

Carolyn Korsmeyer defends food against Telfer’s other charges in “The Meaning of Taste and the Taste of Meaning,” but despite her more positive assessment of the aesthetic possibilities of food, she argues that it is a mistake to consider food an art. First, Korsmeyer considers the mimetic possibilities of food, and the meanings they can create – for example, the irony of sharp wasabi shaped into “cool” green leaves. To be fair to Telfer, she explicitly rejects the visual aspect of food, but Korsmeyer rightly questions this stipulation. It seems to be a version of the medium-specificity fallacy – roughly the idea that the only aesthetically relevant properties of a particular art form are those that only that art form can possess. The bulk of Korsmeyer’s article, however, is devoted to a discussion of the meanings foods accrue through their uses. At a basic level, for American culture at least, cereals “mean” breakfast, and chicken soup is “soothing” and “comforting” – expressive properties for Korsmeyer. But Korsmeyer also investigates the ritual or ceremonial use of food. A Thanksgiving feast requires “a turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, gravy, and several pies, including pumpkin or sweet potato” (40). These foods refer to a particular historical event – the first Thanksgiving feast – and to the generic harvest season, bringing along a plenitude of associations.

With this richer view of the aesthetics of food, why does Korsmeyer reject it as art? (1) Foods require their ritual setting to acquire most of their aesthetic properties, unlike artworks, which retain their aesthetic properties in any context; (2) the aesthetic functions of food exceed the qualities of the food itself – for example, all minimally acceptable Thanksgiving turkeys share their most important aesthetic properties; and (3) food and art do not have relevantly parallel histories and traditions – that is, the reason (1) is true is simply that we have not treated food as a fine art.

Perhaps food is more like philosophy: I take it as a good sign that though there is a lot for anyone to digest in this pair of readings, I still hungered for a little more. Korsmeyer’s last point, about the different histories of food and art is one that could be fruitfully followed up by students. For Korsmeyer here touches on a distinction that I think is sometimes muddled by Telfer. There is a difference between the question of whether food is an art (currently in our society, say) and that of whether it could be one. Perhaps in France, or Japan, the way food is treated suggests that it is what we call a fine art. This has implications for Telfer’s suggestion that the potential of food to enrich our everyday aesthetic experience should encourage us to educate people in the art of food. We could educate people about sushi and nouvelle cuisine, but this is not what Telfer has in mind. Before we can educate people about our society’s art of food, we will need to develop one. Considerations like these prompt me to think of Jerrold Levinson’s historical definition of art, and George Dickie’s artistic institutionalism. I was surprised to find no reference to either in the “Suggestions for Further Reading” at the end of the section.

In the section on rock music and culture, Neill and Ridley have excerpted passages from Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Music that cover a wide range of topics, while achieving the appearance of a single through-composed piece. Space is given to Scruton’s views that tonality is a uniquely superior way of organizing music, and that given the twilight of religious and spiritual community in modernity, well-formed abstract instrumental music has an important and unique role as a representation of the human soul in order. But the central thread running through these passages is the importance of dance as a reflection of, and a sign of the dancer’s understanding of, the form of humanity exhibited in the imaginary space that the music occupies. Since the dancing that accompanies contemporary rock is merely “a sexual exhibition” requiring “neither knowledge nor self-control” we can infer that “the music has no other meaning besides release” (129). Scruton sees this conclusion as borne out by rock’s impoverished use of the central musical elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm. (“Beat is not rhythm, but the last sad skeleton of rhythm, stripped bare of human life” [131].)

Theodore Gracyk, philosophy’s most able defender of rock, puts paid to Scruton’s most pessimistic arguments by agreeing with most of his premises. Scruton is right that music exists only in an intentional realm – i.e. when it is understood – but he is wrong in thinking that rock is incapable of complex meanings. One important reason for Scruton’s blindness to the potential of rock is his exclusive interest in tonality. Timbre and the provenance of various stylistic elements in a rock recording can contribute importantly to its message, as Gracyk shows in an extensive analysis of Led Zeppelin’s “D’Yer Mak’Er,” arguing that the song invites a positive assessment of multiculturalism. Furthermore, dancing is not the only way to respond sympathetically to music – in fact, given that dance is primarily a response to rhythm, it cannot display much understanding of melody or harmony, which, as Scruton acknowledges, together account for much of the value of music. Singing along in a group to a popular song can create a sense of community as surely as taking part in a well-ordered dance.

Occasionally, it is not clear that Gracyk is addressing the points Scruton makes. Scruton’s claim about formation dances, for instance is that they reflect the ideal community represented in the music, not that they produce a sense of community. There is also, of course, much more to be disputed in Scruton’s piece than Gracyk has space for – for example Scruton’s claim that a classical listener’s “experience in the concert hall is itself a kind of truncated dance” of the right kind, and thus more acceptable than rock dancing (121). Again, though, these intriguing relations between the two texts are just what those starting out in aesthetics should be exposed to.

Everything new about this second edition of Arguing about Art, then, is an improvement over the already excellent original. The criticisms I have made are minor cavils – the reviewer’s obligatory nitpicking. No one should have any reservations about using this book as the foundation of an introductory analytic aesthetics course. It can be usefully complemented by the editors’ historical anthology, or a collection of more purely theoretical contemporary readings. Most importantly, no student could leave a course structured around this book still under the vague misapprehension, which many come in with, that de gustibus non est disputandum.


2004 © Andrew Kania

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