Dominic McIver Lopes' new book, Beyond Art (Oxford, 2014) is a hot item in small world of analytic aesthetics. After attending a session on it at the American Society for Aesthetics conference at Asilomar, California, I thought I would see what all the fuss was about. Lopes is the current President of the American Society for Aesthetics, and this is probably the highest distinction someone can receive in contemporary Anglo-American aesthetics. So one should take his new book very seriously if you care about the future of aesthetics.
I find myself in deep disagreement with Lopes from the very start. He writes that "the ambition of this book is to show that it is not mandatory to centre the philosophical study of art on the question 'what is art?'" and even further, that the question is "the wrong question for philosophy." I am OK with the notion that asking the question is not mandatory: why should anything be mandatory in philosophy beyond blatantly contradicting yourself? More disturbing is "the wrong question for philosophy." What is philosophy but a series of "what is" questions: "what is knowledge?" "what is truth?" "what is beauty?" and "what is art?"? There are some other types of questions, but Plato's Socrates led the way in showing how philosophy works through asking such questions and trying to answer them. If you are going to have a "philosophy of" (e.g. "philosophy of psychology") the key question in that philosophy of will be the "what is" question. For example the key question in philosophy of science is "what is science?" Sure, there are some slight problems with this. The most important question in philosophy of religion is not "what is God?" but "is there a God?" Then again, one cannot begin to ask whether God exists without asking about what is meant by the word "God." Lopes does not deny that the question "what is art?" can be useful: he thinks that it can "help us to appreciate some works of art by prompting thoughts that are suited to...appreciation of the work...but not to the task of theorizing." (2) He will have to work hard to convince me that what is good for appreciation of art should be cut off so completely from what is good for theorizing about art.
Why do we disagree so much. Maybe it is because Lopes begins his discussion with something Monroe Beardsley said in 1983 about why the problem is so important. Beardsley gave four reasons for the importance of the "what is art?" question. First, philosophers should be curious to know what they are philosophizing about. This strikes me as a strange way of putting things since philosophizing about art, on the Socratic view, just is asking the "what is" question. They are not two different projects. Beardsley's second reason was that it would be important for cases of import duties and censorship. It is true that lawyers and politicians concern themselves with defining key terms: however, asking "what is art?" in the context of philosophy is very different from doing so in these other contexts. It is not at all clear that one can be very helpful for the other. In philosophy, "what is art?" has to do with all of the other central issues in philosophy: what is man? what is reality? what is value? It is a philosophical question. Thirdly, Beardsley thought that answering the question would help out people in the social sciences who need a definition. I don't much like this idea of treating philosophers as providers of nice definitions for other sciences, as though the question of the nature of knowledge is not more deeply shared than that. Sometimes the Europeans have a better idea about this. Someone like Bourdieu, who is interested in the sociology of art, is hardly going to accept any definition of art, or of sociology for that matter, that we might come up with, at least not without a philosophical fight. Asking the "what is" question in a philosophical way is "doing philosophy" regardless of what department one happens to reside in. Finally, Beardsley thought that answering the "what is art" question could provide criteria for critics to decide what to criticize. Again, I do not think this is needed by critics any more than by sociologists. Beardsley just failed to see how philosophy pervades all aspects of our society and not just philosophy departments. Critics like Clive Bell figure prominently in aesthetics textbooks. Why should such a critic look to professional philosophers to solve this deep human problem.
Of course Lopes does not accept Beardsley's ideas, but he uses Beardsley to set the agenda. If this is what the Socratic quest is all about then it is a trivial thing, and this leads to it making sense to stop asking the "what is" question in philosophy...what Lopes recommends. [On reading the entire book now, this may not be fair. Sometimes it seems the Lopes just thinks that "what is art?" is a bad question and that it should be replaced by other "what is" questions, like "what is music?" and "what is architecture?" although there are other times in which he seems to reject this as well. He just thinks there is not enough common between the various arts to make the "what is art" question useful.] I am not arguing that Lopes has Socrates wrong, or is wrong about philosophy, because his view is different from Socrates' view, but I do believe that Plato's Socrates' has a much richer, interesting and more powerful idea about what philosophy can be than I have seen so far in this discussion.
But perhaps I am unfair to Lopes because he does say one right thing here: "Philosophy is not taxonomy. It does not take phenomena fixed in advanced [sic] and then answer, for each phenomenon X, 'what is X?" (4) He is right: nothing is fixed in advance: categories of interest to philosophy shift and change over history. On the other hand, as soon as you fix on a term, for example, "piety," then you can engage in a philosophical debate for the essence of that term, and the result is going to be something called "the philosophy of piety" which itself is probably closely allied to "the philosophy of religion." If, however, Lopes is simply recommending that we back off from the "what is art?" question and ask other philosophical questions like "what is painting?" or "what is improvisation?" there is nothing wrong with that (although I do think that once one has fiddled with these more particular questions for awhile one should try moving up the ladder a bit and ask the 'what is art?' question again).
Lopes' worry about "art" is summed up in the phrase "grab bag of phenomena that are not illuminated by lumping them together as a unity" (4). What "induces queasiness" in him is the idea of placing "Chardin's still lifes alongside John Coltrane's improvisations, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Mies van der Rohe's office towers." (3) One begins to see what he finds problematic: how can there be something that these diverse things have in common? I wouldn't put it past Plato to pick three very different things called "pious" and asking Euthyphro what he thinks they all share in common. It might be that "art" is a more hodge-podge concept than most, and that because of this we should avoid queasiness and go for collections of things that have a more plausible unity. In the next post I will discuss the actual theory posed. My own view of defining art can be found in this post.