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Voices from the Profession
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Peter Kivy

On our “guided tour” of Miami’s art deco district, during the Fall meeting of the ASA, Mary Devereaux asked me what I thought of an idea she had for a column in the Newsletter that she proposed to call “Voices from the Profession,” and that would be written at each go by some different member of the Society. I said I thought it was a terrific idea; and when she asked me to write the inaugural essay, she didn’t have to twist my arm. So here goes.

It is now ten years, and three years into a new century, since I was privileged to deliver the Presidential Address to the American Society for Aesthetics, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. At that time I attempted to take stock of “the state of the art,” as I then saw it, and to make a recommendation about one direction, anyway, in which I thought we might usefully go in the profession. My recommendation was that some of us, at least, might give up the obsessive concern with “defining art,” an obsessive concern, as I saw it, with what the fine arts might have in common, and concern ourselves, rather, with the philosophies of the individual arts, and what makes them individual. Here is how I put it in the Preface to my book, Philosophies of Arts, in which I tried to follow my own advice: “In no way am I urging, on philosophical grounds or any other, that the traditional task of defining the work of art is either impossible or exhausted as a philosophical enterprise…. What I am recommending, or gently suggesting, perhaps, is that at least some of us give it a rest and try to study the arts, as philosophers, in their differences rather than in their sameness: that alongside the philosophy of art we have philosophies of arts” (p. x).

What I thought I might do in this inaugural column of Voices from the Profession is to think about whether what I recommended ten years ago has come to pass. I think that it actually has – in fact in more ways than I then imagined possible, although I am under no illusion that the cause was the power or persuasiveness of my advice. Rather, I am sure that what I said was simply a reflection of the Zeitgeist at work. Pluralism was in the air, in more ways than one: a pluralism of pluralisms.

I do not mean what follows, needless to say, to be taken as a thorough, systematic survey of what has taken place in the profession in the past ten years. Nor will I mention any names, for fear of leaving some out and offending someone or other. (Anyway, you all know the names.) But all one need do is run one’s eye over the contents, for the period in question, of the two major journals of our field, the programs of our annual and regional meetings, and the publication lists of the prominent university presses, to conclude that philosophies of the arts have been pursued with a vengeance in the past ten years. The philosophy of music has flourished beyond anyone’s expectations. Ontological concerns, a revival of interest in authorial intentions, and the growing belief that morality matters, have reinvigorated the philosophy of literature. And the growing interest, on the part of philosophers, in many areas, in the work of experimental and cognitive psychologists, has infected philosophers of the visual arts as well, and resulted in a spate of new and intriguing work in pictorial representation. Nor can we fail to notice the surge of interest in the philosophies of cinema and still photography, and the much neglected philosophy of dance. In short, the “traditional” arts have, individually, been philosophized over to a fair-thee-well.

But, furthermore, the scope of philosophizing has broadened beyond anything I may have had in mind when I made my plea for philosophies of arts. I mention only the following. We now have books and articles on the philosophy of mass art, the philosophy of horror, the philosophy of folk art, the philosophy of popular music, including both rock and jazz, the philosophy of theater (as worthy of consideration beyond its membership in the category of literature). I am sure I have left many philosophies of… out; but I think I have made my point, and will be forgiven for not knowing everything.

But the pluralism I called for does not end here. Indeed, it goes in directions I never for a moment envisioned. For I had been thinking of the arts with a more or less conventional list in mind. Food as art was not, for example, something I would have taken seriously at the time. (Who would have?) And yet at this writing, we have, to my knowledge, at least two books on the subject, a growing list of articles, and recent presentations at the ASA. Nor dare I omit to mention the newly revived interest in jokes as art. We always, as a Society, recognized this genre in the bar; but now, indeed, in book, article and symposium.

As well, the boundaries of what might be thought of as arts, with philosophies thereof, are not the only boundaries being transgressed and broken down. The boundaries of the aesthetic will not hold either. I will adduce one obvious example. Doubtless my readers will be able to think of others.

What I have reference to is the recent spate of work on the aesthetics of nature and the environment. Of course there is nothing new about the notion that nature can be the bearer of what we think of as “aesthetic” properties. Indeed, there is something old about it: old and, when I was starting out my career, outmoded; strictly déclassé. Aesthetics had become, in the nineteenth century, philosophy of art; and in the twentieth century so it remained. It was a historical curiosity that nature was considered the major source of the sublime by Kant and his century. But contemporary analytic aesthetics did not take nature seriously as an object of its inquiry. And as for “environmental aesthetics,” it wasn’t even in the vocabulary. Thus the upsurge of interest, on the part of aestheticians, in the past decade, in these related “objects” of a more liberally construed aesthetic experience, must be considered a development of the utmost significance.

In the past ten years, then, my dream of “philosophies of arts” has become a vigorous, pulsating reality, far exceeding my boldest hopes. Furthermore, our willingness to consider arts that were in times past “beneath the notice” of academic philosophy as well as our willingness to expand the horizons of the “aesthetic,” have surely enriched the discipline and dispelled any lingering notion that its practitioners are locked in an Ivory Tower. This is all to the good; but there is a danger here too. And I want to conclude by briefly considering it (paranoid as I may be on the subject).

David Hume famously said: be a philosopher but be still a man. I say: be an aesthetic pluralist but be still a philosopher. Now I don’t pretend to know the “essence” of philosophy, if indeed it has one. I do know, however, what brought me into the profession, and, I think, many others of my contemporaries as well. I was a “humanist,” at heart, and found in philosophy what I did not find in the other humanistic subjects I had dallied with: the impulse to clarity and rigor. The quest for these scarce commodities has characterized philosophy in the West since its beginnings: since, that is to say, Socrates started asking the Athenians hard questions, and testing their answers against the standards of clarity and rigor as he then understood them.

But it is all too tempting, when breaking through the traditional boundaries of art and the aesthetic, to get careless, and run ahead of clarity and rigor in the inevitable intoxication with the excitingly new, particularly if one feels a little bit, as well, that clarity and rigor are two old fogies holding back progress. That seems to me to be the inevitable, though avoidable danger of the enterprise.

I am not, I hasten to add, suggesting that in order to serve these demanding task masters, aesthetics need or should be put in Principia notation. There are many styles of clarity, and many styles of rigor; and we all have taken to heart Aristotle’s well known admonition to be sure we get the right ones in the right places.

The best compliment on any of my work that I ever received was from a reviewer who was giving one of my books a pretty heavy going over. Perhaps he was beginning to feel a bit guilty, because he ended with words to the following effect, which he must have thought might be of some comfort to me: “What I like about Kivy is that he writes so clearly that I always know when he is wrong.” (Obviously he thought I was wrong a lot of the time.) Did he perhaps fear he was damning with faint praise? I hope not, because I took it as the highest possible compliment.

So: let’s continue to expand our borders. But let’s, as well, go slowly, that we may be rigorous enough to get it right, and, more important still, clear enough so that we will know when we get it wrong.

2003 © Peter Kivy

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