Monday, December 23, 2013

Denis Dutton and Mapping the Field of Everyday Aesthetics

Denis Dutton’s effort to give a naturalist definition of art provides some interesting material for our effort to understand everyday aesthetics, particularly those aspects that are very close in character to art.[1] Dutton gives a list of criteria for something to be art, none of, and no set of which, are necessary. He adds that if something meets none of the criteria it is not art, and if it meets all of them it must be art. It is also part of Dutton’s scheme that none of the criteria are sufficient for something to be art. Because of this, at the end of each discussion of a criterion he speaks of phenomena which are not art but which meet the criterion. This gives a nice list of properties of non-art phenomena that are worth paying attention to aesthetically.
It is useful for the purposes of developing a theory of everyday aesthetics to go through his discussion of each term in his list and observe each of his comments about non-art applications of these terms.  The reader should understand that, unlike Dutton, I do not intend to say anything here about the nature of art. Rather, I am using Dutton’s criteria of art as a way of mapping the field of everyday aesthetics. This may seem off if one feels that art aesthetics is radically different from everyday aesthetics, but less so if one believes that aesthetics is a general field of which art aesthetics, natural aesthetics and everyday aesthetics are parts, and that there is a continuity between art aesthetics and everyday aesthetics in that many features of art depend on aspects of the world that would exist even without art.  In what follows, Dutton’s name for each property is in italics.
Here then is Dutton’s list of features of art connected with his comments about non-art applications of these features. (1) The art object is typically valued as a source of immediate pleasure, and this is also true for sports and play. (2) High skill is valued not only in art but in other areas, for example in sports. (3) Style is found not only in art but in most other human activities that are not merely reflexive. (4) Novelty and creativity are admired in plumbing and dentistry as well as in art. (5) Criticism is found wherever the activity is complex. (6) Realistic representation is found in scientific illustration (not mentioned by Dutton) as well as in art. (7) Religious rite, ceremonial pomp, political activity and advertizing all try to make something special by giving it a theatrical character. (8) Any activity with a creative element, including designing a company newsletter, may have expressive individuality. (9) Many non-art activities are saturated with emotion. (10) Like art, puzzles and many games give us intellectual challenge. (11) All organized activities have institutional and traditional backgrounds. Finally, (12) there is an imaginative experience dimension of much that is non-art, although Dutton agrees with Kant that art takes imagination to another level, away from practical concerns, logic and “rational understanding.” However, it could be argued that art is not the only thing that can do this. Everyday aesthetic experience also often takes imagination to a new level.
It seems, in short, that one could map the aesthetics of everyday life precisely in terms of the various criteria of art each of which, Dutton has observed, art shares with other aspects of life. There is another way that Dutton’s call for a naturalistic aesthetics of art can be helpful in the construction of an aesthetics of everyday life.  Drawing from the writings of various anthropologists and linguists, Dutton makes a list of “innate, universal features and capabilities of the human mind.”  Each one of the items in the list is something that one can take pleasure in.  When we do this we see that the list can be of primal human pleasures that can provide the basis of aesthetics. I will add the term “pleasure” to the items on this list:
  • pleasure in keeping track of how objects fall, bounce, or bend
  • pleasure in taking an interest in plants and animals in their species division
  • pleasure in making tools, in flaking things, in attaching objects to one another
  • pleasure in observing the operations of the minds of others
  • pleasure in imaginative mapping and spatial understanding
  • pleasure in body adornment
  • pleasure in manipulating numbers
  • pleasure in estimating probabilities
  • pleasure in reading facial expressions
  • pleasure in being able to throw objects precisely
  • pleasure in organized pitched sounds, rhythmically produced by the human voice or by instruments
  • pleasure in exchange of goods and favors
  • pleasure in a sense of justice
  • pleasure in the operations of logic
  • pleasure in learning and using language[2]
Not all of these are aesthetic pleasures if such pleasure must be sensuous.  For example pleasure in a sense of justice, in the operations of logic, in manipulating numbers, in estimating probabilities, and in exchange of goods and favors are not aesthetic in that sense.  However, it is hardly new to suggest that these things can have aesthetic properties, for example beauty.  To that extent they belong to the aesthetics of everyday life.  

[1]  Denis Dutton. “A Naturalist Definition of Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism  64:3 (2006) 367-377.  Also see his The Art Instinct:  Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. (New York:  Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
[2]   Dutton, The Art Instinct, pp. 43-44.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I am interested in learning about aesthetics and the philosophy of art. Have any recommendations for a beginner?

There are a number of good introductory texts to aesthetics and the philosophy of art that could give you an overview.  What works best for you would depend on your background and interests.  More recent works have the advantage of covering more recent controversies.  However, sometimes the older ones are better written or contain material that is still of interest.  In addition to introductory texts I list several guidebooks and companions:  they are all pretty similar to each other.   The entries are usually well written.  However, like all encyclopedia articles, these can be a bit tepid compared to the kinds of articles that really change the nature of the field.  Those articles are typically found in anthologies often used as textbooks.  I include several of those anthologies here too.  The anthologies either cover the whole of the history of aesthetics/philosophy of art or roughly the last fifty years. If you want deep rich reading I recommend reading one of the former kind.  However if you are interested in hot topics in contemporary professional philosophy I recommend the latter.  These anthologies are either in analytic aesthetics, continental aesthetics, or both.  I also include some other anthologies that are typically used in introductory level aesthetics classes and which often cover a wider range of opinion, for example Asian as well as Western perspectives.  With many of these books you can save money by buying a used copy of an earlier edition or getting from the library.  I will revise this blog entry from time to time.  I will not be including many rare or obviously out-of-date introductory texts and anthologies:  the ones I will include are usually readily available through online bookstores.  For the sake of speed I have not given full bibliographical information, but you can easily use the information I give to find out more.

Steve Cahn ed.  Aesthetics:  A Comprehensive Anthology.  2007  An anthology that covers both historical figures and contemporary debates.  

Noel Carroll.  Philosophy of Art   1999   Well-written by one of the most important contemporary analytic aestheticians. 

Clive Cazeaux ed..  The Continental Aesthetics Reader.  Routledge.  2011.  Includes such figures as Kant, Sartre, Benjamin Lyotard, Kristeva, Bachelard, Marcuse, Barthes and Irigaray.

David Cooper ed.  A Companion to Aesthetics.  Blackwell.  1995    A mini-encyclopedia of aesthetics. 

Stephen Davies.  Philosophy of Art.  Wiley-Blackwell.  2006. An introductory overview by an important contemporary philosopher of art in the analytic tradition.  He has also more recently written a book on art and evolution. 

George Dickie ed.  Aesthetics:  An Anthology.  St. Martins Press. 1989.   This is an old one but covers both classic selections and leading articles of the late part of the 20th century. 

George Dickie.  Introduction to Aesthetics.  Oxford. 1997.   This text goes back to the 1970s.  I haven't read this most recent edition.  Dickie is quite famous in analytic aesthetics for his institutional theory of art.  Well written. 

Richard Eldridge.  An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art.  2003.  Eldridge's perspective combines pragmatism and romanticism (as strange as that may sound).  There are some deep thoughts here.

Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard. ed.  Aesthetics.  Oxford U. Press, 1998.  A good anthology for teaching an aesthetics class.

Berys Gaut ed.  Routledge Companion to Aesthetics.   Routledge. 2013   This is a good way to learn about aesthetics and philosophy of art.  Ditto for the other companion books.

David Goldblatt and Lee Brown.  Aesthetics:  A Reader in the Philosophy of Art.  Pearson.  2010.  I use this anthology frequently in my Introduction to Aesthetics class.    

Theodore Gracyk.  Philosophy of Art:  An Introduction.  Polity.  2011.  I recently taught this one and made comments on it on this blog   Just search "Gracyk" in the search area on the right.

Richard Kierney ed.  Continental Aesthetics Reader.  Wiley Blackwell.  2001.  One of two such anthologies that focuses on the continental tradition, e.d. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty.

Matthiew Kieren.  Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Art.  Wiley Blackwell.  2005.  This is an anthology the sets up debating positions of analytic philosophers.  Good for advanced students.

Carolyn Korsmeyer.  Aesthetics:  The Big Questions.  Wiley-Blackwell, 1998.  Good anthology useful for introduction to aesthetics classes.

Cynthia Freeland.  But is it Art? An Introduction to Art Theory.  Oxford.  2002.  colorful and relatively light --- takes into account recent trends in art, well-illustrated.  This is a great book for the beginner who is also an artist.  I comment on it in this blog.

Peter Lamarque ed.  Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art:  The Analytic Tradition.  Wiley Blackwell.  2003.   This anthology covers the key articles and book chapters that have sparked debate in analytic aesthetics. 

Jerrold Levinson ed.  The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics.  Oxford University Press.  2005.  This is similar to the other companions:  a short encyclopedia.  Very thorough.

Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley ed.  Arguing About Art.  Routledge.  2007.  Sets up competing articles on various fun issues in aesthetics.  My Philosophy of Art class enjoyed discussing whether food is art, forgeries, horror, sentimental art, and so forth.

Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley ed.  The Philosophy of Art:  Reading Ancient and Modern.  McGraw-Hill.  1994.   This is a a useful anthology of readings/selections.   

Roger Scruton.  Beauty:  A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford University Press, 2011.  This introduction to aesthetics is by a leading British analytic thinker. 

Robert Stecker   Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art.  2010.   analytic, very precise and argumentative, clear, a bit dry, but Stecker is a major thinker.

Roger Warburton.  The Art Question.  Routledge.  2002.  This is a very short introduction to aesthetics: well done.  

Saturday, December 7, 2013

On the question "do tribal societies have our concept of art?"

Larry Shiner in his article "Western and Non-Western Concepts of Art" (in Arguing About Art:  Contemporary Philosophical Debates ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley,  New York: Routledge, 2002) argues for a greater attention to the history of the Western concept of art when considering whether small-scale traditional societies (henceforth I'll use the shorter term "tribal") could be said to have art in our (western) sense of the term.  The premise of the debate is a bit strange since the non-western is by no means equivalent to the tribal:  Chinese and Indian traditions of art, for example, are in many ways more similar to Western traditions than to tribal ones, and whether Islamic traditions fit more into one category than the other is open to question.  Moreover, there is no one Western idea of art, but rather the Western tradition is one of competing ideas, sometimes radically different ideas, concerning the nature of art.  Another peculiarity of the discussion is the assumption made by Shiner that tribal art is limited to ritual objects and thus the question is whether their ritual objects should be classified as art.  There are many tribally produced objects that were never intended to be used in rituals that nonetheless appear in Western art and anthropology museums.  Denis Dutton has famously argued in his "But they don't have our concept of art" (found also in Arguing About Art) that tribal cultures do have art if art is defined in the cluster concept way Dutton favors.  Dutton also thought that the claim that they do not have art in our sense is based on not looking at all the arts, for example religious and folk art, in our culture, and only looking at what is called "fine art."  Shiner sort of agrees, but, unlike Dutton, doesn't have any problem with people like anthropologist Susan Vogel insisting that the Baule villagers do not have "Art" in our sense, her reason being that the work is used in ritual contexts.

Going back to Shiner, his view is that Dutton fails to give sufficient weight to the historical development of the concept of art in the West. His main point is that since the 18th century we have had two concepts of art, the traditional one that takes "art" to refer to any craft, and includes what we consider the fine arts, e.g. dance and poetry, as crafts, and the modernist concept of Art as fine art, i.e. something that is autonomous, kept in museums or concert halls, is produced by this elevated personage called an "artist," and is perceived in a disinterested fashion.  Shiner is certainly right that "ars" originally referred to any skilled performance.  However, it is very doubtful that people prior to the 18th century always grouped all skilled performances under one category.  There was certainly a long-tradition, for example, of holding poets and poetry in special esteem.  Another story of the origins of the concept of fine art in the West could be that the category of poetry gradually came to be expanded when it was discovered that many of the things we valued in poets could also be valued in painters, sculptors, musicians, architects and dancers.  Indeed, the history of the rise of the concept of fine art could be written as a history in which each of these was successively brought into the fold of fine art, with further chapters covering photography, movies, and perhaps now  video games.  There is a sense, in reading Shiner, that there is something wrong with fine art and that we should dissolve the fine art/crafts distinction and in a sense go back to seeing art simply in terms of skilled making.  But I think this story (whether Shiner would ascribe to it is unclear) has two problems.  First, it may well be throwing the (genius artist) baby out with the bathwater.  An alternative theory could be that the concept of fine art was a marvelous discovery, a discovery that humans (artists) could do what previously was thought only God could do, that humans could really create.  This is Kant's idea of the fine artist, as someone, a genius, who could create his own world using his creative (he called it "productive") imagination, a world that could act as a symbol (he called it "aesthetic idea") which could body forth or at least intimate something spiritual (he called it "the supersensible realm.") (Like Shiner, some feminists have a problem with this, thinking that since Kant was probably just thinking of men as geniuses then the notion of genius itself was suspect, which is deeply problematic since it assumes that a woman cannot be a genius, a very unfeminist view, I would think.) This idea allowed that humans have the very creative powers which, as Ludwig Feuerbach in his great Essence of Christianity, put it, had been projected onto a non-existent God.  There is, of course, an alienation involved in the separation of craft from fine art, and this is something that William Morris, for instance, tried to overcome.  The project of re-enchanting the non-art world of everyday aesthetics is one that I have advocated, perhaps too indirectly, in my book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.  But, oddly, Shiner's dichotomy actually encourages the alienation by suggesting that the traditional concept of art is itself denuded of spiritual energy (a mistake that is not made by Vogel, by the way).  So Shiner sets up a dichotomy of Art vs. craft, Artist vs. artisan, Aestehtic vs. utility or sensuality, where the right hand side of the dichotomy is something now to be valued over the left side, utility or sensuality being its defining characteristic.  The baby that is thrown out with the bathwater is the great value of the creation of the concept of "fine art" (i.e. the expansion of the notion of poetry that was already present in western civilization, poetry as something inspired, unlike shoe-making) as allowing a place for a spiritual dimension to experience in a world in which, as Nietzsche wisely put it, God is dead.  What Shiner refers to, almost mockingly, when talking about the fine art work, as "a composition complete in itself, arising out of the artist's free creativity, and aiming at no further end than aesthetic contemplation" fails to recognize the immense importance of the discovery:  the work of art is, yes, a function of the artist's free creativity in the sense that the artist is inspired and, in the moment of inspiration, feels free, and is able to create his or her own world, a world that reflects our own, but transforms and intensifies it, and yes, the end is aesthetic contemplation, but this contemplation is associated by many Western thinkers with many other ends, for example in Hegel with the end of the human spirit coming to its own self-understanding. 

To be fair, Shiner does say that in the Western system "all the nobler aspects of the artisan/artist were ascribed to the artist alone" which could mean that in a new order in which the distinction is deconstructed, such nobler qualities as creativity and genius could be attributed back to (and encouraged in) the crafts traditions, but then they could no longer be seen in terms of mere utility or the merely sensuous.  I would join Shiner in rejecting the narrow conception of "craft" as presented by R. J. Collingwood:  as many craftspersons themselves insist, and I once found as a slogan on a button, "craft is fine art too," which is to say that there are weavings and pots that are also works of genius and not merely useful or sensuously pleasing.  So my problem with Shiner is really just that he assumes that the older sense of "art" indicates that art for pre-modern and tribal peoples was and is just a matter of utility or "a work of human making" as opposed to natural product, as he puts it.  Returning then to tribal art, it is remarkable that Shiner makes a big deal of the idea that they cannot have our notion of art as fine art since we have special places such as art museums and concert halls which are segregated for this from the rest of life and they do not.  It is remarkable given that tribal and pre-modern societies commonly have sacred spots and times that are ritually separated and relatively autonomous as well.  What are temples, after all?  So it may be that the assumption I mentioned in the beginning that tribal art is tribal ritual art has some truth to it in the sense that tribal ritual art acts as a pretty good analogue to fine art in the Western tradition, whereas tribal artifacts that are not parts of ritual practices, fit into the notion of craft as mere useful making.  There are of course in-between objects, as discussed by Octavio Paz when he glorifies the folk art traditions of Mexico...but that is for a later discussion.