Tuesday, May 23, 2006

What is Art?

In an earlier post, I gave brief attention to Tolstoy's view that art is a form of communication, and so is to be evaluated, as art, to the extent that it communicates well what is worth communicating.

Whatever its defects, this view has the merit of making clear the point of thinking about the essence of art: not to effect a classification, but to derive an evaluative standard. If a work of art is by nature a kind of F, it is supposed to follow that it is good, as such, such in case it is good as an F. The essence of art reveals the nature of artistic value.

In this light, the problem with Tolstoy's conception is that it leaves out a great deal of what we ordinarily take to matter in art, as art. For some of the most extraordinary artistic creations, we are hard pressed to say what the "message" could be. And even where this seems possible, to some extent – as with The Kreutzer Sonata or Hadji Murad – it is wrong to conclude that nothing else is relevant. It matters to artistic value how a content is conveyed – and not just how efficiently.

The only way to save the present view is to identify what is communicated by a work of art with everything that is involved in experiencing it. But then the view is deprived of interest. It would have been illuminating to learn that art is good, as such, just to the extent that it is good as communication. It is not helpful to be told that a work of art is good, as such, just in case the comprehending experience of that work is good, as an experience. The question, "What makes an experience good, as such?" is no less obscure than the question of artistic value; and unless restricted in some way, it threatens to be irrelevant. For instance: an experience might be good, as such, because it is morally good, in ways that have no aesthetic significance.

The fundamental issue raised by Tolstoy's view is about the autonomy of artistic value: can the value of a work of art be reduced to values of other kinds? No doubt his theory is too simple: art does many things, and can be good in many ways – as communication, as artifice, as entertainment. But this is consistent with his principal, reductive claim.

It is also consistent with his rejection of beauty, that "all-confusing concept". Beauty is an obvious candidate for autonomous artistic value. But even if we can isolate artistic beauty, as distinct from the beauty of nature, it is hard to see how this could work. If artistic beauty is just artistic value, the proposal says nothing at all. If it is something different, we need to know what it is.

A common suggestion associates the beauty of art with pleasure. But here, again, we should be moved by Tolstoy's critique. If he is wrong to say that causing pleasure is frivolous, and thus unworthy to be the aim of art, that is because pleasure is not to be conceived in Bentham's terms. As Aristotle saw, pleasure involves the apparent perception of value. But then the problem of autonomy is simply deferred. (This is why it is misleading to rely on pleasure as the ground for critical judgements, as Frank Kermode purports to do in Pleasure and Change. If it is relevant here at all, pleasure can only be a symptom of something else: what is the value in which we take pleasure, when we take pleasure in art?)

I should confess that, although I have read some work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, I haven't read that much. I've been trying to isolate the problems I want to think about, first. One problem is about intention and the meaning of a work of art; the other is about artistic value. The question is: what should I read next?


Anonymous bob said...

I am also in the position of having read a little of aesthetics. Lately I have started reading Dominic McIver Lopes' Sight and Sensibility. He is on to something interesting: thinking about the multiple ways a work of pictorial art can have value and the interaction between the pictorial value and the other sorts of value the work might have. I'm only into the 2nd chapter so I can't give away the ending.

7:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suggest you read soon, if you haven't already, Arthur Gell's masterly anthropological treatment of art: "Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory" (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998). To paraphrase, Gell considers art-works as tokens of intentionality, in which viewers/listeners/recipients/etc believe the effects they experience of the art-work as having been intended by some agent (the artist, a community, or a spiritual being). The art-work is thus seen as a carrier (a channel of communication) of the intentions of some agent(s).

-- Peter McB

7:09 PM  
Anonymous Chris Mole said...

Was it not Iris Murdoch's 'The Idea of Perfection' that gave this blog its name? Isn't her's the spirit that haunts most of the excellent things that appear on this blog? She has lots of good things to say about this kind of thing.

I'm sure you've read Murdoch's 'The Fire and The Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists' (originally a book, but collected with other things in Existentialists and Mystics).

In there, and in The Sovereignty of Good, one of the things that is going on is that Murdoch is taking on the view in Stuart Hampshire's 'Logic and Appreciation' that: "The spectator-critic in any of the arts needs gifts precisely the opposite of the moralist’s".

Murdoch's response, of course, is to rebuild ethical judgement on the model of aesthetic appreciation, and, correspondingly, to rebuild aesthetics on the model of ethics. The first of these ideas was crucial in the whole virtue ethics project, and it may be that the second idea is an idea whose time has come. It seems to me to be a very helpful way of approaching the question about the autonomy of art and aesthetics.

My own two cents worth is that the thing that's characteristic of aesthetic value is that it is non-autonomous from the values of truth, of goodness, and of pleasure.

I hope that's helpful.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Thanks for these suggestions. I ordered Gell's book from our library, since the Oxford paperback goes for $50!

And yes: Murdoch is a Muse, though I have so far resisted the temptation to address her work directly. I sometimes contemplate writing a series of posts on Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, which I've never managed to finish on my own.

One final thought. The claim that aesthetic value is "non-autonomous" could mean two things: that it is reducible to values of others kinds (the generalization of Tolstoy's view); or merely that it depends on the realization of other values, so that aesthetic value is never "pure". My sense is that the second claim is more plausible than the first; but they both need further reflection.

4:44 PM  

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