In this very wide-ranging and absorbing monograph, Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that modern aestheticians ignore the varieties of engagement with art, in an exclusive focus on disinterested attention. This, he argues, is because they assume the ‘grand narrative concerning art in the modern world’. According to Wolterstorff, this narrative holds that in the Early Modern period in the West, members of the bourgeoisie increasingly engaged works of the arts as objects of disinterested attention. The narrative claims that this change represented the arts coming into their own, and that works of art, so engaged, are socially other and transcendent. The change arose through the emergence of a bourgeoisie with leisure and a secular civil society; thus ‘contemplation as a way of engaging with works of arts came into prominence’ (7). Wolterstorff rejects the grand narrative, and offers an alternative framework: that the arts are social practices and that artworks have different meaning in different practices. Social practices are enacted within the community of audiences, artists, performers and other presenters. His new framework rejects the grand narrative’s implication that to engage a work of the arts disinterestedly one must do so as an object of attentive viewing, that the arts come into their own insofar as we engage them disinterestedly and that the act of attending disinterestedly is socially other and transcendent. What is meant by ‘social practice’ is illustrated in several chapters on art types that allegedly do not fit the grand narrative: memorial art such as monuments and gravestones; art for veneration, such as Orthodox Christian icons; art of social protest and ‘art that enhances’, including work songs and shanties. Each of these is analysed and then discussed in detail in one or two subsequent chapters; social protest art is illustrated by a persuasive reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a chapter on Käthe Kollwitz. The grand narrative is associated with art historian Oskar Kristeller, and Wolterstorff follows James Porter’s recent critique of the Kristeller thesis that the Western system of the five major arts – painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry – did not assume definite shape till the 18th century, though ingredients were found in classical, medieval and Renaissance periods. Porter agrees with Kristeller that the concept of fine art arose around the turn of the 18th century, but he denies that 18th-century writers had a stable list of fine arts and that they thought of fine art as autonomous, that is, independent of morality, religion and utility. He also denies that ancient writers paid no attention to aesthetic qualities of artworks. ‘Though the ancient Greeks did not have our concept of thearts, they did have the media that we now call “the arts”’, Wolterstorff agrees (7). In explanation of these 18th-century changes, Wolterstorff interestingly cites Simpson’s thesis that ‘the Enlightenment produced the museum and the category of Art in defensive response to early modern iconoclasm. The category of Art and the space of the museum protect…neutralize…and revalorize the image’ (Simpson, 10). Society now ‘had a new space for the image: gallery not church; it had a new way of looking at pictures: detached taste, not engaged hope for salvation’ (144). This discussion connects with that of art as veneration, and Hans Belting’s thesis that ‘the era of the image’ ended with the Renaissance and Reformation, replaced by ‘the era of art’. (The former remaining alive on Orthodox Christianity.) Wolterstorff contrasts the structure of ‘the world of memorial art’ with that of the artworld. Memorials are not designed, like works of fine art, to engage the public in appreciative acts. They may serve to preserve memory, but their central role is to honour, through gestures that have little to do with aesthetic delectation and more to do with performance of a social practice that conventionally honours. Thus, there is a ‘difference of function between memorial art and art for aesthetic attention’ (126); ‘Whether or not [the Belfast murals] are well painted, their social-practice meaning as memorial art is not to be located in their aesthetic qualities’ (156). There is something seriously wrong here, I would argue – memorials should not simply be contrasted with fine or high art. (Though high art is not a category that Wolterstorff uses; and I am unclear what he makes of pre-modern attitudes to the aesthetic qualities of functional art.) Wolterstorff notes that the memorial artist will not be indifferent to developments in the contemporary artworld – which shows that he perhaps recognises the common error of treating aestheticism or art for art’s sake as a necessary condition of an aesthetic attitude. Yet that seems to be the error into which he falls. Consider an Ancient Greek craftsman working on a funerary urn. Because the value spheres are not separate, it might be argued, one cannot speak of the maker hoping to elicit a genuinely aesthetic response to the workmanship which he is lavishing on the artefact. His aim is, in part, to honour the dead person, or ensure them a peaceful afterlife, or appease the gods. But why would the gods be appeased? Because they appreciate the effort involved in creating beautiful craftsmanship – an answer that assumes that the gods, like humans, appreciate beauty (if not for its own sake) and have an aesthetic attitude. The funerary vase is not art for art’s sake, but it is art for morality or religion’s sake. So prior to the separation of the value spheres, the aesthetic must have been at least a genuine instrumental good. An analogous argument applies to memorial art in the modern era – the work memorialises partly in virtue of its aesthetic value. Despite my criticisms, the book has many excellent qualities. It is good to see artistic criticism brought together with philosophical analysis, on such interesting and neglected topics as the icon and the artwork and on the role of memory and honouring in memorial art. Wolterstorff’s passionate interest in connecting philosophy and the arts is brought out in Art Rethought. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Analysis Trust. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Analysis – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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