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Aesthetics in Europe and the Americas - Contemporary Trends And Issues

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Increasingly from the latter half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century aesthetics grew in stature as an established branch of philosophy in both the Anglo-American (analytic) and European (Continental) schools of philosophy. The subject was widely taught in universities and learned societies devoted to the subject—the American Society for Aesthetics and societies from the individual European nations—had strong support. Aesthetics was well integrated into mainstream philosophical inquiry with aestheticians drawing on work in, for example, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. Indeed the borrowings go both ways, as sometimes technical work in aesthetics—on fictionality, aesthetic properties, ontology of art, interpretation, narrative—has contributed to an advance of understanding in other philosophical fields.

Twenty-first-century concerns in aesthetics might be seen as falling into two broad areas: philosophy of art, on the one hand, and on the other the investigation of aesthetic experience more generally, including experience of the natural world. Philosophy of art encompasses theoretical questions about the nature of art itself, how works of art are distinguished from other artifacts, what values art embodies, and also the special qualities of individual art forms, not only the traditional "fine arts" but other arts such as film, photography, and "mass art." Inquiries into aesthetic experience go beyond the experience of art and investigate human responses to beauty and other aesthetic qualities wherever they are manifested.

Philosophy of art.

When analytic philosophers began to turn their attention to aesthetics in the 1940s, one of their early concerns was to analyze the concept of art itself. The idea of providing a definition of art, one that covered all art forms, had not been a central preoccupation of aesthetics in previous centuries. Leo Tolstoy in What Is Art? (1898) had proposed that art involves the transmission of feeling from artist to audience; and other kinds of "expression" views, ultimately deriving from romantic conceptions of art, were developed by Croce and Collingwood. More often than not, those who sought an "essence" for art had, implicitly if not explicitly, one particular art form in mind, for example, painting or poetry. Thus the idea that art is essentially a "representation," a descendent of classical "mimetic" theories, foundered on "nonrepresentational" arts, including music and all abstract art. Clive Bell's claim in Art (1914) that what is essential to art is "significant form" and the arousing of "aesthetic emotion" was more convincing about modernist painting, which he championed, than about the realist novel. Analytic philosophers felt the need to go back to basics. Could there be any property that all forms of art—painting, music, literature, sculpture, dance, drama—had in common, a property possession of which was both necessary and sufficient for something to be art?

Initially many philosophers were skeptical that art has such an "essence" and indeed that the concept of art lent itself to strict definition. In an influential paper from 1956, "The Role of Theory in Aesthetics," Morris Weitz (1916–1981) argued that there could be no definition of art because "art" is an "open concept," allowing for radically new kinds of instantiation. Weitz was one of the first philosophers to recognize the difficulty posed for philosophy of art by the rapid proliferation of art movements in the twentieth century, from modernism to dadaism. If the "readymades" (a urinal, a snow shovel, a bottle rack, etc.) of the avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) could count as art, then traditional conceptions would have to be revised. Weitz proposed that all that binds together the disparate products called "art" are loosely connected "family resemblances," a notion drawn from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953).

However, not all philosophers agreed with Weitz's anti-essentialism, and a swing back toward essentialist accounts was evident in the final quarter of the twentieth century. What is distinctive about these developments is that rather than seeking some intrinsic property shared by all works of art—such as "beauty," "form," "representation," "expression"—they highlighted extrinsic or relational properties of a social, historical, or "institutional" kind. The American philosopher Arthur Danto (b. 1924) was one of the first to develop this line of thought, suggesting that what makes something art is not what it looks like but what role it plays in an "artworld." This is a striking repudiation of a long-standing premise that art must engage aesthetic perception. Following Danto, "institutional" definitions were proposed whereby an object becomes art only by virtue of having that status conferred on it by an institution or artworld or "art circle," consisting of a loose-knit community of artists, critics, and art appreciators. There is no suggestion that each putative work comes before a panel of experts for authentication but only that there is an essentially social aspect to the existence of art. A related species of art theory makes explicit a historical dimension to art. According to these accounts, to acquire the status of art, an object must be connected in some way with works previously accepted as art: for example, they must be intended to be regarded in ways that earlier works were regarded, or there must be some narrative that links the present with the past.

The immense variety of art forms poses a problem not just for definition but for the more metaphysical question of what kinds of entities art works are. It is common to postulate a deep divide between those works that are unique physical objects, like paintings, carved sculptures, or buildings, and those that allow for multiple instances, like musical and literary works, films, prints, and photographs. While a painting can be destroyed in a fire, it is less easy to see how a symphony might be destroyed (it could, for example, survive the loss of the original score). There is considerable philosophical interest in pursuing the right "ontology" for art, that is, the mode of existence for different kinds of works. Some philosophers are anxious to present a unitary view, in contrast to the binary one just outlined, and it has been suggested that a painting might in principle also be a "type" with multiple instances, the original canvas being no more significant than an original score. Others have argued that the true identity of any work rests not in the final product but in the complex performance that brought it about. This theory recognizes that facts about a work's provenance are vitally relevant both to what the work is and how it should be appreciated.

A significant trend in contemporary philosophy of art has been to focus on particular art forms. There are recognized branches of aesthetics now labeled philosophy of music, philosophy of literature, philosophy of film, and so on. This tendency has brought aesthetics closer to critics and practitioners within the arts. Often, distinctive issues arise within these more narrowly defined areas. For example, philosophers of music have asked how music can express emotion; whether profundity is possible in music; whether musical works are created or discovered; and what it is to understand music, without assuming that musical understanding is the same as understanding literature or painting. In an important book, The Aesthetics of Music (1997), Roger Scruton has argued that music is nonrepresentational, requires a special kind of "intentional" understanding, and yields in its essential musical features only to metaphorical description.

In the philosophy of literature much attention has been given to fictionality, drawing on work in the philosophy of language. How is fictional discourse distinct from nonfictional? Can works of imaginative or fictional literature be bearers of truth (a question familiar from Plato and Aristotle)? One especially persistent problem concerns emotional responses to fiction: on the assumption that to feel, for example, fear and pity, one must believe that the objects of the emotions are real, how can an audience respond in this way (as Aristotle requires for tragedy) when it is known that the objects are mere fictions? Yet another important debate about literature—which extends to all the arts—concerns criteria for interpretation. Is the critic's role to recover an artist's intention or is meaning a product of cultural and literary convention?

In the philosophy of the visual arts, a fundamental question is how depiction in two dimensions can represent three-dimensional objects in space. The preliminary thought that pictures must resemble their subject in order to depict them is both difficult to make precise (in some respects anything resembles anything) and open to counterexamples, in the form of caricatures, cubist portraits, and symbolic representations (for example, Christ depicted as a lamb). Some philosophers reject resemblance altogether as an explanation of pictures, preferring to stress the conventional, quasi-linguistic nature of representation. Kendall Walton, in his influential Mimesis As Make-Believe (1990), argues that viewers of pictures play a "game of make-believe" in which they make believe they see objects depicted when in fact they see only paint and canvas. Others have followed Richard Wollheim in supposing that depiction can be explained as a species of "seeing-in" or "seeingas." Philosophical explorations of the visual arts have extended to include film and photography, and developments in the aesthetics of film have challenged theoretical approaches based on Marxism and psychoanalysis.

Across all the arts, the issue of what makes art in itself valuable and what criteria are available for evaluating particular works has posed a perennial conundrum. Some aestheticians see value judgments as relative, culture-bound, or "ideological" and have sought to play down their significance. Others have connected the value of art with the very conception of art itself. If art is mimesis, then good art is judged for how well it holds a "mirror to nature," but if art is expression then it is judged for the depth and sincerity of the artist's vision. In a subtle treatment of the question, Values of Art (1995), Malcolm Budd argues that the value of a work of art as a work of art is the intrinsic value of the experience the work offers. This is a noninstrumental value, and "experience" is left sufficiently wide to include traditional cognitive values such as moral insight.

There are important currents of thought in contemporary aesthetics that are different from, even opposed to, those based in analytic philosophy. The notion of the "death of the author," promoted by Roland Barthes (1915–1980) and Michel Foucault (1926–1984), has been influential not merely for its impact on literary criticism but also as part of a general poststructuralist skepticism about meaning and subjectivity. In rejecting the notion of a unified autonomous self as the origin of meaning and emphasizing "intertextuality" and the priority of writing over speaking, poststructuralists like Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) present a direct challenge to what they view as the "logocentrism," or focus on logic and reasoning, of analytic philosophers. Another challenge to core assumptions of traditional aesthetics comes from feminist aesthetics, a growing and influential development in the subject. There are many different, sometimes conflicting, strands to feminist approaches, but central ideas include a reshaping of the artistic canon to include more works by women; an emphasis on gendered responses to art in opposition to notions of universal aesthetic experience; a relocating of art production into its social and personal contexts and a tendency to downplay formalist approaches and concomitant conceptions like "disinterestness"; and the promotion of revised criteria for art evaluation. Marxists, like feminists, roundly reject the notion that art exists in a realm of pure experience or pleasure. Aestheticians like Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), of the Frankfurt School, follow general Marxist precepts in attributing to art deeply social meanings, either reinforcing or resisting prevailing ideologies. Aesthetics itself has been challenged as a set of interests and values inescapably imbued with (bourgeois) ideology.

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