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Vol. V • 1982


Aesthetics: An Introduction, by George Dickie.
Pegasus, A Division of the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., New York, 1971. 200 pp. incl. Notes, Bibliography and Index. Hardcover, price not stated.

This relatively slim volume presenting an outline of major concepts and philosophies of art, beauty and aesthetics from Plato to our own day serves as a useful introduction to the history of aesthetical theories and, with reservations, to the status of such theories today. The author has read widely especially in contemporary sources and has a gift of condensing his information concisely, fairly and in an easygoing manner lending itself to humorous and clever asides. Reader interest is therefore maintained throughout the book. One is grateful for the avoidance of "many of the intellectual difficulties which are rife in aesthetics: pretentious language, misleading terminology, vagueness, and unnecessary mystery and complication."(78)

The minus side of the discussion is the result of the shortcomings of autonomous philosophy in general, which are nowhere more flagrantly evident than in philosophies of art and human creativity. The autonomous philosopher and thinker starts with his or her own more or less admitted mindset (though he or she may claim to be "objective" in deliberate omission of several elementary reasons for inbuilt bias, beginning with his or her own relative place in human history/time!), and thus with basic uncertainty. This uncertainty is never overcome and pertains to any and all ingredients of a philosophical "recipe. "To this day, therefore, "the problems involved in the evaluation of art are far from being resolved and . . widespread philosophical disagreement persists."(Dickie's concluding statement, 182)

"Good art" is just a matter of opinion.
Dickie attempts to shed some clarity upon the philosophy of art/aesthetics by his historical overview of major art philosophers, because"(w)ithout such a guide, the problems of aesthetic have the appearance of being a series of not very closely related questions."(1) What he inadvertently admits by having recourse to this chronological "guide" is that all philosophy of art/aesthetics from Plato to Dickie consists merely of the claims and counterclaims, the systems and system-smashings of consecutive philosophical schools, and does not involve any kind of inherent internal relationships. The reader is reminded of a similar disintegration of internal coherence and meaning in the wake of the 18th century Enlightenment, demonstrated by "the famous Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, edited by Diderot, (where) we find everything for the first time arranged in alphabetical order The connecting link has gone."(quoted from HR. Rookmaaker, The Creative Gift also reviewed in this issue of the CSSH Quarterly) Indeed the classical philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus) paved the way for neo-paganism by way of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, culminating in modern full-fledged secular humanism.

Almost all the philosophers singled out by Dickie are of this type, and even the exceptions—St. Thomas Aquinas, Shaftesbury, Alison suffer from more or less admixture of impersonalism to their views of the arts which are explicitly meant to be in conformity to the Biblical Christian faith. Among these three, Shaftesbury (1671-1713) touches upon the Biblical creation perspective in the most explicit terms. He

He also introduced the notion that "selfish or interested desires, of which the desire for possession is the paradigm, are destructive of aesthetic appreciation." (14-15) This theory has been carried over into contemporary philosophies of aesthetics by the notion that something called "disinterested perception" is the foundation of aesthetic experience. Archibald Alison (1757-1839) continued in the trend of Shaftesbury; Dickie states:

Dickie counsels Alison how this commitment could be avoided: by saying that the emotion of taste is evoked when a natural object is taken to be a sign of the Divine Artist." (21 ) The philosophical fiction of "objectivity" defined as absence of presuppositions (especially Christian presuppositions) must be maintained in proper philosophy!

Art as imitation.
Dickie points out that all theories of art up to the end of the eighteenth century A.D. were variations of the "imitation theory of art" which was first formulated by Plato (428-348 B.C.) in the Symposium and which basically saw artistic activity as an imitation of the form of beauty in nature. Subtheories of this concept, such as uniformity in variety, did not break its overall confines. (Plato's objections to art, based upon art's illusory, imitative nature, and upon its generally harmful effect upon people, have also persisted.).

Art as expression.
The alternative theory of art, the "expression theory," arose with Romanticism in the nineteenth century when leading thinkers revolted against the empiricism and scientism produced by the Enlightenment. Dickie calls it "an attempt to reach behind the sensuous screen of ordinary knowledge to something thought to be vital and important. A strong aura of religion and mysticism hovers around Romanticism"(39) The artist was now seen as a guide to kinds of knowledge unattainable by empirical, scientific means. Whatever one's reaction to this definition of an artist's functions, it brought about a new current in looking at art as well. This new current was well described by Nietzsche as follows:

Hence followed the full-fledged expression theory of art: "art is the expression of the emotion of its creator (the artist)."(40) This theory was also held by Leo Tolstoy ( 1828- 19 1 0). Dickie appropriately calls Tolstoy's "a three-term version of the expression theory, which brings reference to spectators, readers, and the like into the definition of art."

Art as useful.
From here to a utilitarian conception of art as being able to "do something important for people" (41) there is hardly any distance (there is a utilitarian undercurrent throughout Tolstoy's concept of Christianity). Dickie rightly points out that music is overwhelmingly non-imitational, and this fact, together with the great development of music preceding the nineteenth century, helped in the displacement of the imitation theory and the rise of the expression theory. Dickie devotes most of the remainder of his book to a discussion of present day theories of art, wisely prefacing this discussion by the cautious statement,

The world just doesn't know…
"It may be that a definition of art cannot be given; the concept of art may be too rich and complicated to be captured in the traditional manner." (43) He presents an excellent table "The Domain of Aesthetics" on page 45, where he divides "aesthetics into three fields, "Theory of the Aesthetic," "Philosophy of Art," and "Philosophy of Criticism." All three ultimately seek to analyze what is known as "aesthetic experience." As we pointed out before, there is no consensus anywhere in this entire area; this reviewer (as so often before) remembers and wholeheartedly agrees with the statement by one of her philosophy professors, "Philosophy has great difficulty dealing with experience."

Within modern theories of art, Dickie singles out Clive Bell (essentialism, derived from the English philosopher George E. Moore, and claiming that beauty and "the aesthetic emotion" are simply "there" and not further analyzable); Suzanne Langer (a "modern version of Plato's imitation theory; Langer does point out that a work of art "formulates… the character of so-called 'inner life,' which… the normal use of words… is peculiarly unable to articulate"); the modern expressionist theory of art by R.G. Collingwood (who distinguishes between "art proper" and allegedly false art modes, namely, entertainment and propaganda art); Ludwig Wittgenstein's notion of "art as an open concept" (that is, a concept "for which there is no necessary condition in order for something to be an instance of that concept" (95)—or in practice, anything and everything may quality as "art"); and finally, Morris Weitz's concept of art as a social institution (according to which an object qualifies as "art" if the "artworld" has conferred this status upon it). It is useful to keep these concepts in mind when we study today's prestigious "artworld" (the term is the invention of art philosopher Arthur Danto). Dickie's discussion, while carried on in a style befitting philosophers and somewhat removed from common sense, is thought-provoking and helpful to anyone who would substantiate his objections to philosophies of art in general.

Anything goes.
It does seem as though philosophies of art of the autonomous, worldly variety are simply rationalizations of their authors' inability to reject anything whatsoever as unaesthetic or non-art! Dickie quite seriously speaks in this connection of Betsy the Chimpanzee's painting qualifying as "art" if so accepted by an art museum, or of Duchamp's passing off a urinal, or snowshovel and a hatrack as works of art. (105, 106)
Recommended mainly as a useful, concise introduction to the world of aesthetic analysis; and especially to its historical development. Even here, Christian authors' art histories and specific treatises, such as Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live? are far preferable. The Christian works are alive; Dickie is of "the dead who bury their dead."

—Reviewed by Ellen Myers

"Book Review: Aesthetics: An Introduction"
CSSHS • Creation Social Science & Humanities Society • Quarterly Journal

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