was one of the first eighteenth-century thinkers to focus attention on the sublime His interest in the sublime probably derived from his conception of the world as the creation of God; the vastness and incomprehensibility of that creation could only be described as sublime. (13)
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:
One curious aspect of his theory is that it seems to presuppose the existence of God. In order for an object to evoke the emotion of taste, it must be a sign of or expressive of a quality of mind. For works of art, the mind is the artist's, and for natural objects, the mind is that of the "Divine Artist." What is curious is that what is essentially a psychological theory suddenly presupposes a theological commitment. (21 )
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:
Our aesthetics have hitherto been women's aesthetics, inasmuch as they have only formulated the experiences of what is beautiful, from the point of view of the receivers in art. In the whole of philosophy hitherto the artist has been lacking. (quoted in Dickie, 39)
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 is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them. (quoted in Dickie, 40)
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.
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