This book contains essays written over a period of about twenty years, during which Åhlberg’s methodological approach has remained essentially the same. But he indicates that he is now more open to a historical approach, along the lines suggested by Terry Diffey, a development that seems fruitful and worth pursuing in research and analysis, not just in programmatic remarks. The book opens up with an essay on the nature and limits of analytic aesthetics. Considering myself as belonging to this camp, I find the discussion useful and informative, though I would disagree with Åhlberg’s way of using ‘aesthetics’ and ‘philosophy of art’ synonymously even for convenience. In fact, later he makes clear that they should not be mixed up. Moreover, I agree with Åhlberg’s claim that analytical aesthetics cannot be singled out by common doctrines but rather by the methods they use—and they use more than one. Åhlberg argues rightly that anti-essentialism cannot be taken as a defining feature of analytic aesthetics. His criticism of Lüdeking’s criteria is well argued. Personally, I believe that search for clarity, analysis of practices in the art world, without avoiding evaluative issues, is the way forward, and that clarity, consistency, and depth are not mutually exclusive. The book contains a learned and somewhat lengthy discussion on ‘the invention of modern aesthetics’, including the contributions by Leibniz, Baumgarten and Kant to the notion of aesthetics. Obviously the notion of aesthetics has a history and it needs to be clarified. But especially the learned and thorough discussion of Leibniz—no doubt interesting to Leibniz scholars—is in my view of limited interest to those who want to understand what is going on in the art world today. Shaftesbury, dealt with somewhat in passing, is clearly a more important figure in the history of aesthetics, for reasons that Åhlberg rightly mentions. The discussion of the notions of the aesthetic and aesthetics continues in the next chapter. I disagree with the opening remark of this chapter that aesthetics ‘can be, and often is, almost anything’ (55). But I agree with Åhlberg’s claim that a historically informed conceptual analysis may be relevant for his concerns. Three main ideas have been associated with the aesthetic; the perceptual, the beautiful and the artistic, all needing clarification. The book contains an interesting comparison between the aims of the German and the British Society for Aesthetics (65). Åhlberg rightly points out that the misunderstandings and confusions due to the vagueness of our talk about aesthetic properties, aesthetic experience and aesthetic value are far from trivial. He explores them in this book, commenting on the views of contemporary writers such as Budd, Diffey, Binkley, Carroll and Danto. Chapter 4 contains an extended discussion of the fashionable phrase ‘the aesthetic turn’ and in particular of the views of its leading champions Richard Shusterman and Wolfgang Welsch. The author carefully presents their position, in particular their contention that aesthetics has imploded into ethics and politics, and examines their arguments critically. The first challenge is to make clear what ‘the aesthetic turn’ implies and to clarify its relations to post-modernity and various forms of relativism. What do ‘aesthetics’ and ‘the aesthetic’ mean in this context? Åhlberg agrees, of course, that moral choices are made and that moral obligations are action-guiding; but he rightly criticizes the contention that you choose between different moralities as you chose between different ties or shirts. He emphasizes the economic, social, cultural and psychological constraints of such situations. They can constitute robust limitations. In his discussion of Welsch’s position Åhlberg suggests that to argue that aesthetics does not have, or need, foundations does not make aesthetics the foundation of all other philosophical enquiries and he argues that Welsch’s way of using ‘paradigm’ is but yet another way of misusing and vulgarizing this Kuhnian concept. Åhlberg sees no point in broadening the concept of aesthetics to such an extent ‘that almost everything from science, philosophy, ethics, morals life styles, etc, are regarded as aesthetic phenomena’ (93). In chapter 5 the focus is on the celebrated cultural sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his criticism of aesthetics, a discipline which according to Bourdieu by necessity is ahistorical and hence impossible. Bourdieu invents a strawman, the formalist and ahistoric aesthetician, which he then criticizes (102). The many non-sequiturs in Bourdieu’s work are clearly exposed. Åhlberg also exposes the weaknesses of Bourdieu’s position via analogies. It is, he points out, easy to recognize the social conditions that make modern natural science possible, such as vast state funding, the existence of advanced experimental technology, international communications systems, science education in schools and colleges. He then asks: Is anybody therefore tempted to argue that experimental research is prejudiced and that the results of research in the natural sciences are unacceptable because experimental scientists do not normally reflect on these background factors and because their results are formulated in an objective, tenseless language and not properly historicized and relativized? (102) Bourdieu does not see that his position also undermines the unique position he gives to sociology. Bourdieu describes his project as leading to the relativization of all intellectual production—except sociology (103). Art, the conditions of creating or appreciating art, are not static, and the same goes for aesthetic experiences. A historical approach to the notion of artistic value would show that this has not remained constant. The contemporary focus on originality originated with Romanticism and Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), as is well known.1 Creating art is an intentional action hence the artist’s intentions are relevant for understanding and appreciating works of art, even if they do not settle all issues about the meaning, representation and value of a work of art, as Åhlberg rightly points out. This ground has been reasonably well covered by a number of papers and anthologies for several decades, such as Intention and Interpretation (ed. Gary Iseminger) and Art and its Messages (ed. Stephen Davies).2 Anyway, the author criticizes formalist approaches to art: ‘they do not leave enough room for intentions and truth in the art’ (107). These two claims must, in my view, be separated. ‘Truth in art’ opens Pandora’s Box and raises much more difficult and complex issues than intentions in art. He is obviously right in saying that a work can have meanings other than those intended by its creator (115). The general position Åhlberg takes is reasonable and well argued for, but it is not quite clear what he adds to what has already been done in this particular field by others. If intentions are relevant to understanding works of art, this will have consequences for our evaluation of art works, according to Åhlberg. Following Palmer and Leavis, he suggests that it ‘seems inevitable that “the vision of the world” expressed in a work of art will be valued and judged somehow’ (115). He provides some examples intended to illustrate the necessity of ‘taking the world view expressed in a work of art seriously’ (116). He writes approvingly about the Leavis criterion ‘total significance of a profoundly serious kind’, which according to Åhlberg ‘is a value of the highest order’; a view he seems to think that we all are prepared to accept (116). But the criterion is open to so many interpretations that it is hardly of any use. However, he distances himself from some of Leavis’s applications of this criterion. Be that as it may, the author contends that some examples from writings about Fielding, Swift and Wagner show that ‘ultimately it is futile to try to separate the world view of the author/artist from the work’ (119). Here, of course, one is reminded of Panofsky’s iconological interpretations of works of art in Meaning in the Visual Arts and Studies in Iconology.3 Panofsky’s leading idea was precisely to unravel the world view embodied or expressed in a work of art, but Panofsky is not mentioned by Åhlberg. To say that works of art should express ‘something significant and important’ is not to say very much (119); the interesting issues come when the reasons for saying that a work expresses something significant and important are presented and examined. We can all agree with the concluding remark that ‘art at its best enriches our experiences of reality and gives us new insights’ (120). But more needs to be said about in what way art enriches our lives and provides new insights. Like many others, Åhlberg distinguishes between aesthetic and artistic value. In the criteria of artistic value he discusses a criterion of relevance that I and others have proposed (140–141). I think this could reasonably be interpreted as a requirement that the artwork should reveal some new and interesting insights about the world of the artist or the beholders. Obviously it needs to be made more precise: to all beholders, to the majority, or those who pay close attention to the work? But insights about what? Here I would rather opt for a minimalist interpretation, along the famous note by Paul Klee that art does not depict the visible, it makes visible. The cognitive function of art can thus be limited to very few and specific aspects of reality, aspects that are important to at least some spectators. The institutional theory of art, existing in several versions, has been discussed over and over again. It is thus a reasonably well-chartered territory. Åhlberg discusses the differences between the earlier and the later versions of Dickie’s institutional theory, comments on Ted Cohen’s criticism of the theory and Dickie’s replies (214–215); and concludes (rightly) that in the later version the art world is an ‘institution’ only in a Pickwickian sense; in fact, it is not really an institution. However Åhlberg acknowledges that the question ‘nevertheless remains which qualities are relevant to experiencing something as a work of art, and which values are the relevant ones’ (215). Obviously a distinction can be made between a descriptive, classificatory sense of art and a value-laden concept of art. The latter makes it difficult, but not impossible to talk about bad art. Thus I agree with Åhlberg that it does not follow that if we define art in evaluative terms, ‘bad art’ becomes a definitional impossibility. Part III in the book is devoted to Heidegger’s views on the essence of art. Åhlberg goes through the main canonical texts, the views of and disagreements between the many commentators on Heidegger’s essays on great art, in particular the role Heidegger assigns to van Gogh and Hölderlin. Are these efforts worthwhile? I have not been convinced. Rather, I tend to agree with Åhlberg that it is ‘difficult to see that Heidegger’s essay and his reflections on the “essence” of art are of any relevance for contemporary philosophy of art and contemporary art. There are too many inconsistencies and obscurities in his text’ (312). So why spend almost one hundred pages on these ideas? Some minor points and reflections may be added. The importance of Cassirer for the theory of Susanne Langer surely deserved more than a few sentences. Åhlberg somewhat underestimates the variety of aesthetic qualities; these qualities or properties deserve more attention. Moreover, I wish Åhlberg had problematized more the concepts of symbol and the idea of the languages of the arts, including music. The book is a somewhat mixed bag and it also contains a discussion of the challenge of evolutionary psychology to the humanities, including genetic determinism, advocated among others by the famous geneticist James Watson. Of course, the scene has now changed due to developments in epigenetics. In medical ethics and in regenerative medicine these issues are being discussed in detail. But to dissect the ramifications of these new discoveries would be too much in a review. Anyway, evolutionary psychology raises interesting issues, in particular for history and other humanistic disciplines, and indeed for the possibility of scientific knowledge. But contrary to what Åhlberg suggests, I do not think that it might be easier to circumvent these difficulties, ‘if one had a Kuhnian view of science’ (382). Åhlberg discusses two problems which he refers to as self-reference and explanatory vacuity. Cultural phenomena raise problems for evolutionary psychologists, and in a postscript to this chapter Åhlberg concludes by saying that ‘Nature is a precondition for culture, and culture a way of coping with nature’ (397). This sounds fine, but the question remains how ‘coping’ should be understood in this context. Nevertheless, this is in many ways an impressive and learned book. Along with a number of other books published during the last decade, in particular Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (ed. Matthew Kieran), it shows that research in aesthetics and philosophy of art is lively and has a promising future.4 Footnotes 1 Edward Young, ‘Conjectures on Original Composition,’ in Edith J. Morley (ed.), (Manchester: Longmans Green & Co, 1918). 2 Gary Isemenger (ed.), ‘Intention and Interpretation’ (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992); Stephen Davies, ‘Art and its Messages: Meaning, Morality and Society’ (Pennsylvania, PA: Penn State University Press, 1995). 3 Erwin Panofsky, ‘Meaning in the Visual Arts’ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1983); ‘Studies in Iconology’ (Oxford: OUP, 1939). 4 Matthew Kieran (ed.), ‘Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and in the Philosophy of Art’ (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006). © British Society of Aesthetics 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The British Journal of Aesthetics – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 28, 2017
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