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Art and its Objects ends abruptly with the claim – surprising in an age obsessed with distinguishing between facts and values and with worrying about the logical status of value judgments – that, deliberately, next to nothing has been said in this book about the evaluation of art. Instead, Wollheim's central aim is to understand what we are doing when we are either making or attending to art – an enterprise, as it were, of descriptive phenomenology. Two related, central ideas running through his account are that we demand a certain sort of experience from the things that we undertake to engage with as art, and that artmakers are typically responsive to this demand.
Both the nature of this demand and the available modes of response to it then emerge as far more complex and interesting than unidimensional accounts of art as a matter of pleasure or expression or form alone suppose. For one thing, works of art fall into types – poems, sculptures, operas, paintings, buildings, ballets, among others – not all of which require the work of art to be itself a physical object. More important, even when the work is a physical object, as in sculpture or painting, it has formal, expressive, and stylistic properties that are not reducible either to its physical features alone or to mere effects in the minds of its recipients. Hence Wollheim powerfully criticizes both sensuous-presentationalist-formalist theories of art and phenomenalist-idealist theories of art for focusing on only one aspect of works that typically and centrally involve the working of materials, against a background of practices and traditions, for the sake of complex, interrelated effects. What Wollheim calls ‘the working of the medium’ (p. 36) – pictorial, verbal, acoustic, and so on – matters.
There is no way apart from historically and critically informed experience of art to specify the materials and modes of working them that yield successful works. Both ‘the artistic impulse’ (p. 93) and the demands we make on art are, while rooted in biological facts about human beings, nonetheless not reducible to them.
Art products and performances seem in some rough sense to be about something. Even when they do not carry any explicitly statable single message, they nonetheless invite and focus thought. Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Sol Le Witt’s constructions, Vito Acconci’s performance pieces, and Louise Lawler’s conceptual art are all put forward, in Duchamp’s phrase, “at the service of the mind,” in that they are intended to set up in an audience a line of thinking about a subject matter. Most literary works clearly undertake to describe an action, situation, or event. Works of dance typically have a narrative-developmental structure, and even works of architecture seem both to proceed from and to invite thoughts about how space is and ought to be experienced and used. Works of textless pure or absolute music have beginnings, middles, and ends that have seemed to many listeners to model or share shapes with broad patterns of human action. The abstract painter Hans Hoffmann in teaching used to have his students begin by putting a blue brush stroke on a bare canvas and then asking them to think about its relations to the space “behind,” “in front of,” and around it, as though the mere stroke were already a means of incipiently presenting a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface.
Yet these facts about presentation of a subject matter in the arts raise considerable problems. How is representation achieved in various media? Does representation centrally involve any likeness or resemblance (as seems to be the case in much visual depiction) between representer and represented, or does it involve centrally the manipulation of syntactically structured conventional codes (as in linguistic representation)? Is the same sense of “representation” (with different means of achieving it) involved in different media of art? Does the value of a work of art depend upon what it represents, and if so, how? Is representationality even necessary for art? Is it sufficient?
It has long been recognized that human beings find various visual and auditory appearances to be deeply absorbing. Certain sunsets, flowers, bird-songs, and beautiful bodies, among natural things, and certain pots, carvings, vocalizations, and marked surfaces, among humanly made things, seem to engage eye or ear together with attentive mind. In experiencing such things, we feel we want the experience to continue for “its own sake,” at least for some further time. Greek uses the phrase to kalon – the fine, the good, or the beautiful – to describe many sorts of things that are attractive to mind and eye or ear, without sharply distinguishing natural beauty from artistic merit (or moral goodness). In the Symposium, Socrates reports that the priestess Diotima once instructed him in how “a lover who goes about this matter correctly must begin in his youth to devote himself to beautiful bodies,” first loving one body, then many (as he comes to understand that they are alike in beauty), next beautiful minds, beautiful laws and customs, beautiful ideas and theories, until finally he will come to love “the Beautiful itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not polluted by human flesh or colors or any other great nonsense of mortality.”
It is natural to think of the affording of such experiences as a central aim of art. Many artists seem to seek to engage and entrance eye or ear and mind. They monitor and revise their products – rearranging colors, shapes, notes, words, or postures – with a view to deepening the product’s affordance of absorbing experience, where this affordance seems to be a function of the arrangement, form, or pattern of elements composing the work.
Some controversial cases: Mapplethorpe, Serrano, Finley, and others
In 1989 national protests erupted in response to a decision by the US-government-funded National Endowment for the Arts to support exhibitions featuring Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work included homoerotic photographs, and Andres Serrano, whose work included Piss Christ, a 5 foot by 3 foot photograph of a wood and plastic crucifix floating suspended in the artist’s urine. In response to the protests, Congress enacted a law directing the NEA to “take into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” in awarding grants.
In June 1990 NEA chairman John Frohnmayer, citing this law and describing their work as “indecent,” then vetoed awards to four artists – Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck – that had been recommended by a NEA peer review panel. Hughes, Miller, and Fleck are gay and deal with homosexual issues in their work. Finley’s most notorious work is her 1989 performance piece We Keep Our Victims Ready, inspired by the case of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old girl who was found on November 28, 1987 alive near her home in upstate New York, covered with feces and wearing only a Hefty trash bag. Ms. Brawley claimed to have been abducted and assaulted by three or six white police officers. After several weeks of investigation, a grand jury concluded “there is nothing in regard to Tawana Brawley’s appearance on November 28 that is inconsistent with this condition having been self-inflicted.” In her performance piece, Finley asks about Brawley’s staging of her abduction and discovery: “Was this the best choice? What was the worst choice? What was the other choice? All of us have that moment where puttin’ the shit on us is the best choice we have.” At the end of the piece, after smearing herself with feces-symbolic chocolate, Finley covers herself with tinsel because, she says, “no matter how bad a woman is treated, she still knows how to get dressed for dinner.”
Feelings about subject matters in life: Wordsworth, Tolstoy, and Collingwood
Against the idea that works of art present a subject matter and the idea that works of art embody pleasing formal arrangements, it can seem important to emphasize that works of art are products of human action – made things, not just either imitations or forms. Without this emphasis artworks can seem either too much like gratuitous reproductions of reality (like mirrors or reflections in ponds) or too much like objects of idle pleasure and amusement (like pretty decorations). When we instead focus on works of art as things that human beings make, then these misemphases can be corrected. Though they do present a subject matter and please through arrangement, works of art are also made in order somehow to communicate something – an attitude, a point of view, or a feeling about a subject matter – that lies in some sense “in” the maker. Audiences typically approach a work with an interest not only in what it asserts but also in what it more broadly communicates, that is, with an interest in which attitudes and emotions toward its subject matter on the part of its maker it makes manifest. It is natural therefore to think that artworks are expressive objects and that it is distinctive of artistic representations and formal arrangements – in contrast with scientific treatises and decorations – that they have as a central function the expression of attitudes and emotions toward their subject matters. Only by attending to art as expression can we properly engage with its distinctive kind of significance: the communication of emotion and attitude, above and beyond simple assertion.
An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art is a clear and compact survey of philosophical theories of the nature and value of art, including in its scope literature, painting, sculpture, music, dance, architecture, movies, conceptual art and performance art. This second edition incorporates significant new research on topics including pictorial depiction, musical expression, conceptual art, Hegel, and art and society. Drawing on classical and contemporary philosophy, literary theory and art criticism, Richard Eldridge explores the representational, formal and expressive dimensions of art. He argues that the aesthetic and semantic density of the work, in inviting imaginative exploration, makes works of art cognitively, morally and socially important. This importance is further elaborated in discussions of artistic beauty, originality, imagination and criticism. His accessible study will be invaluable to students of philosophy of art and aesthetics.
Once again I am grateful to Hilary Gaskin, this time for proposing this revised and expanded edition and for seeing it through production.
The past ten years or so have seen a wide variety of important new work in aesthetics that is of very high quality. While the overall structure and argument of this book are unaltered in this new, expanded edition, I am pleased to have been able now to take substantial notice of the following significant (mostly) recent work: on the theory of pictorial depiction (Robert Hopkins, John Hyman, Dominic Lopes, Michael Newell), on demonstrative attention (John Spackman), on artistic form (Robert Kaufman, Martin Seel), on expression (Stephen Davies, Mitchell Green, Jerrold Levinson, Jenefer Robinson), on Hegel (Annemarie Gethmann-Siefert, Benjamin Rutter), on imagination (Gregory Currie, Kirk Pillow, Richard Moran, Martin Seel), on interpretation (Rita Felski, Alexander Nehamas), on emotion (Gregory Currie, Deborah Knight, Ted Cohen, Jenefer Robinson), on art and morality (Ted Cohen, Berys Gaut, Alexander Nehamas), and on contemporary art (Peter Bürger, Daniel Herwitz, Gregg Horowitz, Dominic Lopes, Sianne Ngai, Peter Osborne). I am also pleased to have been able to incorporate at least brief reference, which may be useful to some readers, to Denis Dutton and Stephen Davies on art and evolution, to Frederick Beiser on Schiller, and to Carolyn Korsmeyer and Aaron Meskin and colleagues on the theory of taste, among others. I have also taken the opportunity of a new edition to improve the clarity and precision of certain wordings where I could.
For almost all people in almost all cultures, either the fact (as in dance) or the product (as in painting) of some commanding performance that is both somehow significant and yet absorbing in its own right (rather than as an immediate instrument of knowledge or work) has raised strong emotions. The dramatic rhapsode Ion, in Plato’s dialogue, reports that when in performance he looks “down at [the audience] from the stage above, I see them, every time, weeping, casting terrible glances, stricken with amazement at the deeds recounted.” Richard Wagner finds nothing less than salvation in the experience of art.
I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven . . . I believe in the Holy Spirit and the truth of the one, indivisible Art . . . I believe that through this Art all men are saved, and therefore each may die of hunger for Her . . . I believe . . . that true disciples of high Art will be transfigured in a heavenly veil of sun-drenched fragrance and sweet sound, and united for eternity with the divine fount of all Harmony. May mine be the sentence of grace! Amen!
Throughout these chapters I have repeatedly invoked the formula that works of art present a subject matter as a focus for thought and emotional attitude, distinctively fused to the imaginative exploration of material. This formula proposes that works of art typically have representational, expressive, and formal dimensions, all of which, both independently and in interaction, are normal foci of attention in making and responding to a work. I have attempted to outline debates about how original works might be made and what their interest is, how works of art distinctively call for interpretation, how they engage our emotions, how they explore the exercise of agency, and how they enter into and comment on wider social developments.
What, then, is the status of this formula that undertakes to sum up the dimensions of art and to lend some order to the debates? Is it a definition of art? Does it specify conditions that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for anything being a work of art?
In presenting a subject matter as a focus for thought and emotional attitude, distinctively fused to the imaginative exploration of material, works of art are evidently special. Where does this special character of art come from? Are successful artists a special class of people, with capacities the rest of us altogether lack? Or do they rather exercise in a special way an imaginative capacity in which we all have a share? What are the roles of training, artistic tradition, and common culture in the development of artistic ability? Can art be taught?
It is commonly thought, and especially widely so in modernity, that artworks are in some way distinctively new and original. Ezra Pound, translating a dictum of Confucius, titled his 1934 collection of critical essays on literature Make it New. John Dewey remarks on “the qualitative novelty that characterizes every genuine work of art.” In Plato’s Ion, Socrates and Ion agree that though Homer and other poets “all treat of the same subjects,” one of them – Homer – “speaks well and the rest of them speak worse,” and this because Homer, like all the good poets, is “inspired, possessed.” Exactly what is going on in Homer that makes his poetry different and special? How does the sort of creative capacity that Homer displays have to do with making things that are distinctively new?
Consider the following six very broad strategies for understanding Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Hamlet can be seen in light of the conscious preoccupations of a roughly identifiable historical epoch such as Jacobean England, the Renaissance, or early modern Europe. For example, one may see the play as addressing problems of political authority and succession, problems of conscience in the light of the Reformation’s resistance to priestly mediation between individuals and God, problems of stagecraft and performance, or some combination of these and other problems. Shakespeare may reasonably be supposed to have known and thought about these problems. To explore Hamlet in this light will mean relating the text to varieties of contemporary documents – for example, political treatises, religious tracts, and instruction manuals for actors – that likewise evidently address such problems. Reading will focus on how the action of the play presents characters confronting these problems. Hamlet is here seen as a consciously formed document that partakes of the spirit of its times.
The reproduction of social life vis-à-vis “infinite satisfaction”
Presenting a subject matter as a focus for thought and emotional attitude, distinctively fused to the imaginative exploration of material is an aspect of many social practices. As Dewey aptly notes, artistic making was originally not directed toward galleries, museums, pedestals, or free readers. Rather it was
part of the significant life of an organized community . . . Domestic utensils, furnishings of tent and house, rugs, mats, jars, pots, bows, spears were wrought with such delighted care that today we hunt them out and give them places of honor in our art museums. Yet in their own time and place, such things were enhancements of the processes of everyday life. Instead of being elevated to a niche apart, they belonged to a display of prowess, the manifestation of group and clan membership, worship of gods, feasting and fasting, fighting, hunting, and all the rhythmic crises that punctuate the stream of living.
What we now call works of art were used within religious and clan rituals, or they were elements of buildings, or parts of communal festivals involving athletics along with song and ritual. However much care was devoted to their making and however much attention was devoted to form and distinctive expression, the objects and texts that were produced were used within the circuits of the reproduction of social life.
The identification and evaluation of objects or performances as works of art is often a process fraught with passion and difficulty. We care about some favorite works that we regard as successful – certain books or movies or paintings – in the way we care about our friends. They appeal to us both immediately and deeply. We often remember them, revisit them, reread them, or rehear them. We recommend them to others, and we are then pleased if the work engages them and sometimes disappointed or troubled if it does not. Prices in the art market and publishing industry depend on what people respond to, as does support by governments and foundations for work in progress.
We often have trouble, however, saying why we respond to a work in the way we do, especially when we are faced with original work. We worry about being taken in, and we can be hesitant to display our enthusiasms. Yet most of us cannot help giving ourselves over to some objects or performances, even to some new and difficult work. Just how and why are we moved to do this? Are there any procedures for being right (at least more often) about which works genuinely have artistic value? What are the relative roles of feeling (liking) and reason in our responses to art? Does reason even play a role? Are or can there be experts in the identification and evaluation of works of artistic value, authorities whose verdicts deserve our deference?
The topic of the presence of German Idealism in nineteenth-century British and American literature, or its influence on it, is both impossibly large and not readily tractable. One could begin to trace philologically either all or the most important direct engagements of major English-language literary writers with German texts. For example, Coleridge read Kant, Fichte and Schelling, notoriously including in Biographia Literaria without attribution several pages translated directly from Schelling's Abhandlungen zur Erläuterung des Idealismus der Wissenschaftslehre. George Eliot read and translated Feuerbach and David Strauss; Thomas Carlyle read and was substantially influenced by Fichte in developing his doctrine of the Everlasting Yea, but also by Goethe and especially by Hoffmann, Tieck and Jean Paul in developing the literary form of Sartor Resartus, with its peculiar quasi-existentialist resistance to systematicity. Given the mass of material and the variety of engagements, it would, however, be unprofitable, and quite likely impossible, to comb the archives for evidence of every direct textual engagement of a major English-language literary writer with a German Idealist source, at least as long as we lacked a general account of why these engagements took place and a way of arranging them into categories having to do with general themes and ideas that were taken up.