Cynthia Freeland in her well known introduction to aesthetics called But is it Art? gives a super-quick history of western aesthetics, what she calls a "virtual tour," which is intended to solve the problem of how to account for disturbing work by contemporary artists (such as Serrano's Piss Christ) that seems to violate two standard theories of art she previously discussed, i.e. that art fosters "communal religious rituals" and that it promotes disinterested aesthetic experience. Her super-quick survey covers five periods in western aesthetics, each of which involves a pairing of a philosopher or philosophical school of the time and an art style in some artistic medium. Freeland concludes her history by implying that the last pairing, Andy Warhol and Arthur Danto, resolves the problem, Danto's philosophy easily handling disturbing art and pointing the way to a pluralist future. I have a somewhat different take on the super-quick history, although what I will say here is certainly inspired by Freeland's amazing effort.
Freeland begins with a standard survey of the debate between Plato and Aristotle over the value of imitative poetry, tragic poetry in particular (in which Aristotle, as usual, comes off the victor), and then notes, as a kind of aside, that Aristotle's defense does not extend well to Euripides' Medea where we are supposed to sympathize with a woman who has just killed her two sons in vengeance against Jason who has dumped her for another woman, moreover she ridiculously (in our contemporary eyes, at least) escapes in a chariot sent by Apollo. Aristotle seems to jump back onto Plato's ship by disapproving of this play because it seems to approve of a person deliberately choosing evil. Freeland also dings him for abstracting tragedy from its social-political context. She then moves on to talk about Ernst Gombrich as another supporter of "the imitative theory of art" insofar as he sees the history of western painting as one of progress in accuracy of representation until Constable at least, except that, as she observes, photography spoils the story, and artists like Van Gogh and O'Keefe start painting irises that are no longer accurate imitations but achieve some other purpose. My thought about this is that just as Aristotle had a deeper notion of mimesis than Plato (although Plato anticipated most of Aristotle's objections in various asides) so too Euripides may have had a deeper sense of it than Aristotle, that mimesis covers disturbing art such as that of Medea quite well, the thought being that art at its best connects us up with a Dionysian level of Being as well as the Apollonian (to use Niezsche's terminology). What strikes me, then, as I move through Freeland's very quick history, is that this is not a history of failures (as she portrays it) but rather a history in which there are very important continuities (and, dare I say it, a development)...and that we share a lot more with the ancient Greeks, with the medievals, and so forth, than one might initially think.
Freeland turns next to Chartres cathedral and the paired philosopher, Aquinas, (who was, himself, strongly inspired by Aristotle) as well as the Plato-inspired philosophers who directly influenced the creation of Chartres. Aquinas's view on beauty, that a beautiful work like a cathedral should have proportion, light and allegory, is nicely discussed in this section of her chapter. Proportion of course connects us back to Pythagoras (and hence Plato), who is also sculpturally represented in the church, as well as in the emphasis placed everywhere on harmony and geometrical forms. It is the idea of luminosity, claritas, which I find most interesting. The notion that light is associated with beauty goes back to Plato's Allegory of the Cave where the Good (which plays the same role as Beauty in the Symposium) emanates light, which represents reason and truth. Light, in the middle ages, as Freeland observes, is proof of divine presence in our world, denoting "internal brightness and design." For Aquinas, "divinity is present in the internal forms of things on earth." As Freeland puts it, "A cathedral, like a good and beautiful person, should have organic unity and manifest claritas." There seems to be a tie here, that organic unity comes with manifesting claritas, and of course "organic unity" is not only associated with Aristotle's notion of beauty (as found in the Poetics) but also with a deeper sense of harmony already present in the Pythagoreans. So perhaps the idea of claritas is a deepening of the notion of mimesis which itself was a deepening of the notion of harmonia. That is what I would like to suggest. Moreover, one need not be a believing Christian to find inspiration in Aquinas' idea: one need only visit Chartres to find that the sense of something sublime there refers back to the world outside and around us, a world of ordinary things that can become extraordinary if looked at in the right way, i.e. as illuminated or as having an aura of significance. Allegory, Aquinas' third principle, should not be separated from the other two but should be seen as organically related to them. Just as God is present in the world through the capacity of things to have claritas and exhibit illumination (which I have suggested is a kind of aura), so too this sense is associated with a richness of meaning which is found in the idea of allegory. As Freeland puts it, "each thing in the world could be a sign from God" but not just as a sign but as a sign that both is harmonious and also illuminating, i.e. with aura. Then, as an atheist (I am speaking not only of myself, here, but of anyone similarly situated), one might, although rejecting God and the top-down approach to explaining this type of experience, see aura as something emergent from meaningful human interactions with the world, finding this sort of experience to give meaning to life (i.e. in a Nietzschean fashion).
Freeland's third station in her mini-history is the gardens of Versailles by André Le Nôtre, paired this time with Kant. The continuity is again evident, as the Sun King, Louis XIV, replaces the Christian God in this realm of meaning in much the way the Christian God replaced Beauty/Good in Plato's metaphysics. Freeland observes that Le Nôtre designed the gardens on the theme of Apollo, a point that captures the Apollonian aspect of art in just the way Nietzsche would require, that is, require of great art (the Dionysian aspect is required too...which is less evident at Versailles). But just as we 20th century viewers can be overwhelmed by the richness of beauty and meaning of a Greek tragedy well-performed or the cathedral at Chartres, so too, it can happen with the gardens at Versailles. Here again the elements of geometry (the plan of the gardens) allegory (the many statues) and claritas (the everpresent Sun-King) are remade, transformed.
Kant, as Freeland observes, saw gardens as a kind of painting, certainly as a fine art, and thus as an art of genius, of someone who could present what Kant called "aesthetic ideas." Freeland, however, loses sight of this a bit when she talks about gardens on a Kantian view as only providing us with beauty, as in an object that gives rise to a free play of the cognitive faculties, as if gardens of this level of greatness and genius were like ordinary wallpaper. Sure, beauty is involved: the "fine" arts are "beautiful arts" for Kant. But they are also arts of genius, and so this connects them with the sublime (and Kant's section on fine art is to be found in his section on the sublime, not in his section on the beautiful!), perhaps in gardens by way of incorporating something more disordered, something, as Nietzsche would put it, Dionysian, where Freeland seems to misunderstand Kant as disapproving of the English garden whereas he sees them more in terms of a dialectical development, the French garden being Apollonian, the English being Dionysian, to use the language of Nietzsche, but not inappropriately.
Freeland now moves on to Nietzsche himself, both in his initial agreement with, and later opposition to, Wagner (specifically against Parsifal). I see, once again, the Apollonian/Dionysian duality as a continuation of the beautiful/sublime duality and synthesis found in the Kantian notion of the art of genius (fine art) and of the idea of claritas as infusing a proportionally ordered world by way of allegorical meaning as found in Aquinas, which reaches back to the eruption of the Dionysian in Medea as a greater deepening of the idea of mimesis, which has been deepened already by Aristotle as opposed to Plato. Nietzsche rejects Parsifal for backsliding into a shallow, kitschy, notion of Christianity, decadent in refusing to say "yes" to life.
The last duo is Danto and Warhol. Danto argues that, as Freeland puts it "the artworld provides a background theory that an artist invokes when exhibiting something as art" which is to say that an artworld representative (even an artist) simply designating something as art (in the way Dickie would hold it) is not enough...there must also be a pathway by which we can see the item as art. True enough, except that neither Medea nor Chartres existed in a world in which there was an artworld, and so the way in which people came to see this as art, or as whatever appropriately preceded what we now call art, would be by way of a theory that was not so much an artworld theory as a cultureworld theory (to coin a term). This would fit Freeland's Dantoian idea that the relevant theory is "something the social and cultural context enables both artist and audience to grasp." So too, obviously, Warhol's Brillo Boxes, as Danto observed, could never have been seen as art in medieval times. (Odd: we think that we can see Chartres Cathedral as art but that people in the middle ages could not see Warhol as art. Even with training? We think we 21st century types have access to the medieval perception but they would not, if they were living today, have access to our own. What makes us so sure? Medieval humans were not biologically all that different from us. Are we, and is Danto in particular, giving them too little credit, or ourselves too much?) Freeland concludes, still roughly following Danto, that "With Brillo Boxes, Warhol demonstrated that anything can be a work of art, given the right situation and theory" and that interpretations are what constitute art as such, making them (artworks) objects that embody meaning. So, the previous art theories are criticized by Danto as mere "disguised endorsements of the kind of art that philosophers approved of "insofar as the theories are "defined against the historically familiar art of the philosopher's own time." So he concludes that, up until his own work, "philosophy of art has really only been art criticism." Again, true enough, except that it is not clear from this that the way philosophers proceeded in earlier times was such a bad thing or that what they did was exactly the same in practice as art criticism. Moreover, it is hard to take Danto seriously on this point while at the same time seeing a picture on the opposite page in Freeland's book in which Danto is seen contemplating Andy Warhol's stacked Brillo Boxes. Isn't Danto himself creating a theory that is very much a product of 1964, the year in which he first encountered Brillo Boxes? How could Danto have succeeded in climbing out of history where all previous philosophers have failed? It is true that, as Freeland puts it, Danto tried to avoid endorsing a particular type of art and that he favored pluralism in art. But his theory is no less "defined against the historically familiar art of the philosopher's own time" and probably no less a kind of sophisticated art criticism, one that endorses pluralism in art, for example. Freeland notes that Danto's theory "explains why the artworld now accepts such diverse entries as bloodfests, dead sharks, and plastic surgery as art." Perhaps it partially explains these things, although the list is hardly a representation of pluralism, but rather a representation of disturbing art, art that hearkens back to the kind of thing we find in Medea or in the wisdom of Silenus mentioned by Nietzsche as connected with the Dionysian. The sublime, disturbing, aspect of art is hardly explained by reference to art as embodied meaning or some theory that art is embodied meaning. Moreover, Danto's theory results in this absurdity: if it were universally accepted there would be no more theories of art (his is the last one) and hence nothing more to back up art or to play in tandem with art in the magnificent ways we have seen in this short history. Danto at one time talked about the end of art, and then later said that this did not mean that artists would not longer have anything to do, since this is just the end of art history. But on his own view, the end of art history would have to be the end of art period since there would be no more theories to allow us to see art as art. (Just saying that the artist's own interpretation of the artwork is theory enough is not enough and is not even consistent with Danto's overall theory.)
Moreover, it is not enough to prove that "almost anything goes," as Freeland puts it, or that anything can be art if a theory backs it up. Oddly, this quick history in which a dialectic of philosophy and art produced both amazing philosophy and amazing art, always deepening the issue of the extraordinary in the ordinary, the sublime in the mundane, ends in a deadening thud (masked as glorious freedom from the constraints of theory). Freeland thinks that the lesson of Danto is that the earlier views of philosophers were "narrow and restricted" since they defined art in terms of "Beauty, Form, etc." as if there isn't something rather narrow in defining art in terms of embodied meaning too. What narrows, of course, is not the use of these concepts to understand art but how one uses them. For example, if one sees "genius" narrowly as applicable only to men then the word and concept can no longer be useful in a feminist society (and yet, oddly, Kant never mentions that this term is limited to men!)
One can agree with Freeland that "Art doesn't have to be a play, a painting, garden, temple, cathedral, or opera. It doesn't have to be beautiful or moral. It doesn't have to manifest personal genius or devotion to a god through luminosity, geometry, and allegory." Sure, it doesn't have to be any of these things, but surely that is not interesting. The point is that art was all of these things, and that all of these things were art, and in wondrous ways, and that, as we have seen, this involves a constant historical transformation of a background set of ideas, really protean in nature, where "personal genius" and "devotion to a god through luminosity, geometry, and allegory" are really different ways of saying something somewhat similar, but where "communicating thoughts through a physical medium" is a serious come-down (as if there really was no difference between art and advertising, as if there were no sublime dimension to art at all). Freeland's concluding complaint that Danto fails to say how an artwork communicates meaning and fails to stress the very evaluation of art he, Danto, engages in as an art critic in another venue (as writer for The Nation) seems trivial by comparison.