|Readings in the History of Ęsthetics: An Open-Source Reader; Ver. 0.11|
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Not very many years ago, aesthetics—understood as the philosophy of art—was regarded as the dim, retarded offspring of two glamorous parents, its discipline and its subject. Philosophy in the twentieth century had become professionalized and technical, its methods formal, and its analytical aims the discovery of the most fundamental structures of thought, language, logic and science. Philosophical questions about art seemed peripheral and its answers cloudy—far too cloudy for those caught up in the reinvention of painting and music and literature to find much help in the dated, faded reflections of the ęsthetician. And students with a primary interest in art who may have registered for courses in this condescendingly tolerated specialty found themselves confronting a perplexingly irrelevant literature. In 1954, the philosopher John Passmore published a paper with the accurate title "The Dreariness of Aesthetics," and it must have been just about then that the wit and painter Barnett Newman delivered one of his most quoted sayings: "Aesthetics is for art what ornithology is for the birds"—a sneer whose edge is blunted today by the fact that the vulgarism it echoes has faded from usage.
I have always had a passionate interest in art and a logical passion for philosophy, but nothing in my experience with either conflicted with the general dismal appraisal of ęsthetics, and I am certain I should never have gotten involved with it had I not visited a singular exhibition at what was then the Stable Gallery on East 74th Street in New York in 1964. Andy Warhol had filled the space with piles of Brillo boxes, similar to if somewhat sturdier than those brashly stenciled cartons stacked in the storerooms of supermarkets wherever soap pads are sold. I was familiar of course with the exploitation of emblems of popular and commercial labels by the pop artists, and Warhol's portraits of Campbell's soup cans were legendary. But as someone who came to artistic age in the heroic period of Abstract Expressionism, when decisions for or against The Image were fraught with an almost religious agony, the crass and casual use of tacky images by the new artists seemed irreverent and juvenile. But the Warhol show raised a question which was intoxicating and immediately philosophical, namely why were his boxes works of art while the almost indistinguishable utilitarian cartons were merely containers for soap pads? Certainly the minor observable differences could not ground as grand a distinction as that between Art and Reality!
A philosophical question arises whenever we have two objects which seem in every relevant particular to be alike, but which belong to importantly different philosophical categories. Descartes for example supposed his experience while dreaming could be indistinguishable from his experience awake, so that no internal criterion could divide delusion from knowledge. Wittgenstein noted that there is nothing to distinguish someone's raising his arm from someone's arm going up, though the distinction between even the simplest action and a mere bodily movement seems fundamental to the way we think of our freedom. Kant sought a criterion for moral action in the fact that it is done from principles rather than simply in conformity with those principles, even though outward behavior might be indistinguishable between the two. In all these cases one must seek the differences outside the juxtaposed and puzzling examples, and this is no less the case when seeking to account for the differences between works of art and mere real things which happen exactly to resemble them.
This problem could have been raised at any time, and not just with the somewhat minimal sorts of works one might suspect the Brillo Boxes to be. It was always conceivable that exact counterparts to the most prized and revered works of art could have come about in ways inconsistent with their being works at all, though no observable differences could be found. I have imagined cases in which an artist dumps a lot of paint in a centrifuge she then spins, just "to see what happens"—and what happens is that it all splats against the wall in an array of splotches that cannot be told by the unaided eye from The Legend of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca. Or an anarchist plants dynamite in the marble quarry, and the explosion results in a lot of lumps of marble which by a statistical miracle combine into a pile which looks like The Leaning Tower at Pisa. Or the forces of nature act through millennnia on a large piece of rock until something not to be told apart from the Apollo Belvedere results.
Nor are these imaginary possibilities restricted to painting, sculpture, and architecture. There are the famous chimpanzees who, typing at random, knocked out all the plays of Shakespeare. But Wordsworth sought to make poetry out of the most commonplace language, while Auden invented a style of reading poetry which was indistinguishable from ordinary talking—so for all anyone could tell, Moliere's M. Jourdain could have been speaking poetry rather than prose all his life. John Cage has made the division between music and noise problematic, leaving it possible that sets of sounds from the street could be music, while other sets which we would spontaneously suppose music happen not to be, just because of the circumstances of their production. And it takes little effort to imagine a dance in which the dancers do ordinary things in the ordinary ways; a dance could consist in someone sitting reading a book. I once saw Baryshnikov break into a football player's run on stage, and I thought it altogether wonderful. True, it may seem difficult to suppose art could have begun with these puzzling works—but it cannot be forgotten that when philosophy first noticed art it was in connection with the possibility of deception.
Now the "dreariness of aesthetics" was diagnosed as due to the effort of philosophers to find a definition of art, and a number of philosophical critics, much under the influence of Wittgenstein, contended that such a definition was neither possible nor necessary. It was not possible because the class of art works seemed radically open, so much so that no set of conditions could be imagined which would be necessary and sufficient for something to be a member. Luckily, there was no need for a definition, since we seem to have had no difficulty in picking out the works of art without benefit of one. And indeed something like this may very well have appeared true until the Warhol boxes came along. For if something is a work of art while something apparently exactly like it is not, it is extremely unlikely we could be certain we could pick the art work out even with a definition. Perhaps we really have no such skill at all. Still, to the degree that there is a difference, some theory is needed to account for it, and the problem of finding such a theory becomes central and urgent. Nor is this merely a matter of abstract concern to philosophers, for it is in response to a question which arose within the world of art itself. Philosophers of the tradition, to the degree that they had thought about art at all, thought chiefly about the art of their own time: Plato, about the illusionistic sculptures of his contemporaries; Kant, about the tasteful objects of the Enlightenment; Nietzsche, about Wagnerian opera; the Wittgensteinians, about the extraordinary proliferation of styles in the twentieth century, when a whole period of art history appeared to last about six months. But the Warhol boxes, though clearly of their time, raised the most general question about art that can be raised, as though the most radical possibilities had at last been realized. It was, in fact, as though art had brought the question of its own identity to consciousness at last.
However this identity is to be articulated, it is clear that it cannot be based upon anything works of art have in common with their counterparts. One prominent theorist, for example, regards paintings as very complex perceptual objects. So they are, but since objects can be imagined perfectly congruent with those which are not art works, these must have equivalent complexity at the level of perception. After all, the problem arose in the first place because no perceptual difference could be imagined finally relevant. But neither can possession of so-called "ęsthetic qualities" serve, since it would be strange if a work of art were beautiful but something exactly like it though not a work of art were not. In fact it has been a major effort of the philosophy of art to de-aestheticize the concept of art. It was Marcel Duchamp, a far deeper artist than Warhol, who presented as "readymades" objects chosen for their lack of aesthetic qualities—grooming combs, hat racks, and, notoriously, pieces of lavatory plumbing. "Ęsthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided," Duchamp wrote of his most controversial work, Fountain, of 1917. It was precisely Duchamp's great effort to make it clear that art is an intellectual activity, a conceptual enterprise and not merely something to which the senses and the feelings come into play. And this must be true of all art, even that most bent upon gratifying the eye or ear, and not just for those works which are regarded as especially "philosophical," like Raphael's School of Athens or Mann's The Magic Mountain. Were someone to choreograph Plato's Republic, that would not, simply because of its exalted content, be more philosophical than Coppelia or Petrouchka. In fact these might be more philosophical, employing as they do real dancers imitating dancing dolls imitating real dancers!
Where are the components for a theory of art to be found? I think a first step may be made in recognizing that works of art are representations, not necessarily in the old sense of resembling their subjects, but in the more extended sense that it is always legitimate to ask what they are about. Warhol's boxes were clearly about something, had a content and a meaning, made a statement, even were metaphors of a sort. In a curious way they made some kind of statement about art, and incorporated into their identity the question of what that identity is—and it was Heidegger who proposed that it is a part of the essence of being a human that the question of what one is, is] part of what one is. But nothing remotely like this could be true of a mere soap box. Dances, too, are representational, not simply in the way in which a pair of dancers may dance the dance the characters dance in the action they imitate, but in the same wide sense in which even the most resolutely abstract art has a pictorial dimension.
The Problem of Indiscernible Counterparts follows from the representationalistic character of works of art. Imagine a sentence written down, and then a set of marks which looks just like the written sentence, but is simply a set of marks. The first set has a whole lot of properties the second set lacks: it is in a language, has a syntax and grammar, says something. And its causes will be quite distinct in kind from those which explain mere marks. The structure then of works of art will have to be different from the structure of objects which merely resemble them.
Now of course not all epresentational things are works of art, so the definition has only begun. I shall not take the next steps here. All I have wished to show is the way that the philosophy of art has deep questions to consider, questions of representation and reality, of structure, truth, and meaning. In considering these things, it moves from the periphery to the center of philosophy, and in so doing it curiously incorporates the two things that give rise to it. For when art attains the level of self-consciousness it has come to attain in our era, the distinction between art and philosophy becomes as problematic as the distinction between reality and art. And the degree to which the appreciation of art becomes a matter of applied philosophy can hardly be overestimated.