Aesthetics, or the science of art,...is only the progressive systematization, always renewed and always renewing, of the problems arising from time to time out of reflection upon art.
—Benedetto Croce, “Aesthetics,” Encyclopedia Britannica (1929)
The questions of esthetics are unchanging—the definition of art (as distinct from non-art or sub-art), the function of art, the types of art, the effects of art, the genesis of art, the relation of art to history and society, criteria of critical evaluation, the processes of perception, and the generic characteristics of superior works. As esthetic thinking deals with properties common and yet peculiar to all things called “art,” the philosophy of art, in contrast to “criticism,” offers statements that are relevant to more than one art, if not fundamental to the arts in general—the presuppositions being that the various arts are more interrelated than not and that common artistic assumptions are more significant than differences in content and materials. Esthetics is, by definition, primarily concerned with “fine art,” if not with only the very best art. Although the philosophy of art customarily depends upon the established hierarchies of critical reputation for its choice of individual examples, esthetics provides more foundation for critical practice than the latter offers the former. Concomitant esthetic concerns include the nature of badness and/or vulgarity in art, and whether art is, or should be, primarily the imitation of nature, the expression of self, or wholly the creation of imagination; for these are questions that are most definitively considered with reference to all of the arts.
Esthetics is more self-reflective than criticism, as well as more dispassionate about particular art forms or works; for it evinces not only a breadth of interest that is ideally all-encompassing but also an objective distance from individual artists, certain styles, internecine disputes and fluctuating hierarchies of reputation. Different esthetic philosophies emphasize different issues, as their basic choices often, on one hand, reflect metaphysical or epistemological assumptions (which may not always be explicit) and, on the other, determine their approach to remaining esthetic issues. Whereas the aim of science is systematic structure, the philosophy of art, even at its finest, is a set of related propositions. Esthetic thinking also tends to be more prescriptive than other branches of philosophy, ethics of course excluded; the American philosopher Charles S. Pierce dubbed esthetics “the basic normative science.”
Esthetics has evolved as both a branch of philosophy (that currently has slight eminence within the American academic profession) and a collection of theoretical reflections by artists and critics, both making explicit those encompassing generalizations that are merely implicit in individual works; so that esthetic thought tends to come either from professional philosophers with an interest in art or from artists and critics with aspirations to philosophy. For these reasons, “esthetics” is not exclusively the domain of self-avowed estheticians, as the epithet is implicitly honorific, characterizing, first, a certain way of thinking about art and, then a level of both perspective and generalization that distinguishes true esthetic ideas from mere criticism about art. Since major esthetic theories emphasize not just different fundamental questions but different dimensions of artistic practice—the creation of art, say, rather than its perception; or evaluation, rather than generic forms—they generally do not possess sufficient common touchstones to invite easy comparison with each other. A further presupposition holds that art, as a particular kind of discourse differing from both expository argument and verifiable demonstration is best regarded as a second nature, so to speak, which is distinct from primary nature.
The answers to the classic questions of esthetics change in time, particularly as the success of a persuasive new style in art renders many old answers dubious, if not ludicrous. Everyone familiar with current art would find obsolete the favorite nineteenth-century categories of the sublime, the tragic, the comic and the picturesque, all of which were derived from a theory of literary and artistic kinds. The reason is, simply, that those qualities, so conspicuous in much nineteenth-century work, are just not particularly prominent in recent art. As Benedetto Croce wrote in 1929, “The chief problem of our time, to be overcome by esthetics, is connected with the [current] crisis in art and in judgments upon art produced by the romantic period.” It is a modern truth that the same art that seemed incomprehensibly innovative to one generation is likely to strike succeeding generations as all too familiar, if not obvious. Indeed, a great change in art, as in our own time, challenges the old esthetic principles and raises a demand for new formulations that bring traditional preoccupations abreast of new experience; one result of every decisive revolution in art should be a comparable revolution in esthetic thinking.
American esthetics between the World Wars focused upon three great themes—the eternal characteristics of realized art, the nature of subjective processes in artistic creation, and art’s social relevance. The first concern unifies, in retrospective intellectual history, estheticians as otherwise contrary as the neo-Aristotelians, with their emphasis upon the resolution of linear forms, and the New Critics, who claimed to derive esthetic criteria (as well as a critical method) valid for all literature and, by obvious implication, for all art too. A statement typical of the time (although its author’s principal theory of art as wish fulfillment put him outside of these two schools) was DeWitt H. Parker’s assertion, in The Analysis of Art (1924), “the general characteristics of esthetic form” could be reduced to six simple principles: “The principle of organic unity, or unity in variety, as it has been called; the principle of the theme; the principle of thematic variation; balance; the principle of hierarchy, and evolution.” Pursuing this concern with unifying structure, Parker followed Aristotle in defining “organic unity [as] the master principle of esthetic form; all the other principles serve it,” so that, here and elsewhere, the quest for unifying esthetic principles inspired an emphasis upon internal artistic unities. Even an esthetician-critic as instinctively eccentric as Kenneth Burke made his major theme the insidiously unifying impact of realized artistic forms.
Another school of American esthetics, influenced by the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (and to a lesser extent by Henri Bergson), emphasized intuition, as opposed to intellect, in an expressionistic theory of art. This had much in common with yet another theory that was derived from the impact of Freudian psychology upon esthetic thinking—regarding all works as expressions (and, thus, symbolic revelations) of the submerged, non-rational psychic constitution of its creator. However, both the Crocean and the Freudian positions were ultimately neither objective nor systematic enough to forge philosophical statements with more profundity than obvious platitude; and though the Freudian position often informed illuminating literary criticism, its descriptions of creative processes remained too abstract and mechanical—too divorced from the real problems of artistic choice and construction. (The European origins and dissemination of these traditions perhaps explains why Jean-Paul Sartre’s esthetics, say, or Theodor Adorno’s, also seem so similarly abstract and amorphous.) Moreover, the decidedly objectivist, self-effacing character of nearly all contemporary art, especially since 1959, makes expressionist theories appear even more irrelevant.
It was characteristic of the American philosopher John Dewey, in contrast, to be less concerned with the creation or art, or even with George Santayana’s earlier emphasis upon esthetic pleasure, than with the audience’s experience of serious art. In his single most influential esthetic text, indicatively entitled Art as Experience (1934), Dewey first characterized the pattern of human experience and perception—intrinsically unending, yet full of short-term conclusions. He then defined art’s function as the coherent organization of experience, which is to say the creation of conclusions. This definition leads Dewey to suggest that the materials available to art can include anything in the world, and then that any practical or intellectual activity, “provided that it is integrated and moves by its own urge to fulfillment, will have esthetic quality.” It follows that all successful art is “clearly conceived and consistently ordered,” no matter the quality of the medium’s surface; for in true esthetic perception, “A beholder must create his own experience.” (This emphasis upon the experience of art identified what became known as “contextualist esthetics”; its primary exponents have been Stephen C. Pepper and Irwin Edman.)
As persuasive as Dewey was in characterizing ideal esthetic experience, his book resembles much of his other philosophy (as well as Emerson’s and Thoreau’s) in making essentially normative statements in a descriptive, matter-of-fact style. Secondly, the persuasiveness of his position is somewhat undermined by Dewey’s evident ignorance of individual works and his equally evident insensitivity to issues of artistic quality. Finally, this emphasis upon the audience’s experience becomes outright subjectivism in Curt John Ducasse’s eccentric but influential The Philosophy of Art (1929), which holds that esthetic value depends upon individual experience and, thus, that works of art cannot be objectively compared. It is scarcely surprising that those philosophers and critics regarding Art as the diametric opposite of science should advocate a contrary intellectual methodology as more appropriate to esthetic discussion.
In the decade after the Second World War, no philosophy of art seemed more dominant in America than that expounded by Suzanne K. Langer, first in Philosophy in a New Key (1942), and then in her most sustained esthetic exposition, Feeling and Form (1953). Her theory of art as symbolic representation is indebted to the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, for symbolism became Langer’s “new key” for generating philosophical answers. “The edifice of human knowledge,” she wrote in the earlier book, “stands before us, not as a vast collection of sense reports, but as a structure of facts that are symbols and laws that have their human meanings.” The words of human language she regarded as one strain of symbolic activity; the non-discursive material of the non-literary arts became another. Both of them are devoted to “the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling,” and a symbol is, in Langer’s definition, “any device whereby we are enabled to make an abstraction.” Thus, to answer the question of how artistic order is created, Langer suggests that the artist endeavors to create unique symbolic structures that nonetheless present “semblances” of familiar feelings—a creative process that, as Langer describes it, scarcely draws upon unconscious materials. “The function of art,” she writes, “is the symbolic expression not of the artist’s actual emotions, but of his knowledge of emotions.” If the symbolic presentation is true to the form of a certain feeling, then this formal abstraction will not only give esthetic pleasure by itself; it will also function to instigate that particular feeling in the spectator.
The intellectual achievement of Langer’s esthetics is a richly supported theory of art-as-emotion that avoids traditional schemes of expression and individual personality on one hand, and explicit universal myth on the other. One evident presupposition is that the ulterior meaning of non-linguistic forms can be universally understood; in truth, however, cultural anthropology documents this last assumption as needlessly naive—the color white, for instance, suggesting to Eskimos feelings quite different from those it inspires in Bushmen. A more critical limitation of Langer’s esthetics is the general sense that her ideas best characterize American art that was prominent in the 1930’s and 1940’s—the representational music of Aaron Copland, the programmatic dance of Martha Graham, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and post-cubist abstract painting. The sensitive historian of esthetics, Thomas Munro, observed in 1950 that “symbols and symbolism” was at the time the dominant esthetic concept. (Similarly, one reason for the influence of gestalt psychology among artists at that time was that it persuasively rationalized the experience of abstract painting.) Instead, the most significant recent art, in America and elsewhere, is by contrast so consciously constructivist and non-referential that no symbolic translations are intended.
Indeed, a conspicuous lack of contemporary relevance continues to plague nearly all recent writing by American academic estheticians, most of whom appear more concerned with understanding and interpreting classic doctrine, many of whom let their apparent ignorance of recent art slide into an unashamed hostility that fans the fires of philistinism. Even worse, as the British philosopher Richard Wollheim noted, “The great difficulty in any modern book of esthetics is to find anything to criticize. For by and large what is not unintelligible is truism.” Anyone reading academic estheticians in bulk discovers that they rarely confront the major contemporary questions and, if then, rarely decisively enough; and this general vagueness leads to further platitudes in their specific discussions. One reason why they continually complain about being misunderstood, even by their professional peers, is that their initial expositions are frequently unclear. Then too, they often make a point of emphasizing ”value” or evaluation (as supposedly untemporal and, thus, a philosophical specialty); but this emphasis, like that upon “beauty,” serves in practice to introduce precisely those archaic standards that modernist art tries to surpass. As values, both artistic and humane, do indeed change, evaluation remains among the less enlightening approaches to any new art (or any unfamiliar experience, for that matter). New art, in contrast, customarily denies platitude and previous standards of excellence; it challenges accepted esthetic assumptions (particularly those separating art from non-art); it must be apprehended accurately before it is judged. Similarly, it is extreme works, rather than conventional ones, which prompt esthetic reawakening. With the acceptance of a radically different art comes the need to reinterpret, if not recreate, esthetic philosophy.
The truth is that just as so much consequential contemporary sociology comes from writers outside the academic profession, so the esthetic philosophy more appropriate to our time has been forged largely by artists and critics. This shift in origins comes not without shortcomings, of course. Whereas deductive estheticians tend to omit works that they do not like or cannot understand, the artist or critic, customarily working inductively, makes no pretense of moving beyond his primary enthusiasms. Concomitantly, artists and even critics inevitably adopt an approach whose initial scope is much narrower than Langer’s, say, or Dewey’s; they do not feel the academic obligation to acknowledge prominent previous alternative theories before presenting their own. Indicatively, they find definition more essential than evaluation, and the qualities of “significance” or “interest” more laudatory than, say, “beauty.” Thirdly, artists and critics tend to be more intimately familiar with the extreme artistic endeavors that pose the most radical challenges to a de facto philosophy of art. These up-to-date inductive estheticians, at their best, forge generalizations relevant not just to one art but contemporary arts as a whole; and in the sum of their particular perspectives is perhaps a comprehensive esthetic philosophy that, except for minor divergences, would have fairly general contemporary relevance—at least to advanced American art since 1959.
One of the first American books to deal comprehensively with distinctively contemporary art was L. Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion (1947). Its author, born in Hungary in 1895, became successively a painter and photographer in post-WWI Berlin, a teacher at the Bauhaus, a film-maker, a designer, a sculptor, a writer successively in Hungarian, German, and English, and much else. As a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, he emigrated first to London and then to Chicago in 1937 to head the New Bauhaus, which later became the Institute of Design (itself subsequently incorporated into the Illinois Institute of Technology). Written in English and published just after Moholy-Nagy’s premature death in 1946, Vision in Motion draws upon its author’s incomparably various artistic experience, in order to outline his innovative (and influential) program for artistic education. More importantly, as a participant-observer in the revolutions of modern art, Moholy-Nagy personally understood its radical break with past art; as an intellectual, he acknowledged the need for a new esthetics.
In the unprecedented activities of modern art, he found two encompassing tendencies—kinesis and arts-between-old-arts. The first revolutionary development—art that moves—he traced back to cubism and its innovation of systemic multiple perspective realized within a single plane; so that one change in the visual arts, for instance, was a decisive evolution from “fixed perspective to ‘vision in motion’ [of] seeing a constantly changing moving field of mutual relationships.” This leads, of course, to mobile sculpture (where Moholy-Nagy himself was a pioneer creator) and even to cinema, where the form of cinematic montage with multiple perspective represents a formally analogous extension of cubism. In all modern art, Moholy-Nagy finds “space-time” or “vision in motion, “ which he ultimately regards as “a new dynamic and kinetic existence free from the static, fixed framework of the past, “ and this art demands, in turn, unprecedented kinds of esthetic perception. Moholy-Nagy’s generalization is, of course, as perspicacious for contemporary painterly arts as post-ballet modern dance; and the simultaneously multiple perspective of cubistic visual space has formal analogies with, among other phenomena, the aural experience of post-Schoenbergian serial music.
On the second point of arts-between-old-arts, Moholy-Nagy’s discussion of sculpture, for instance, acknowledges that an Alexander Calder mobile possessing negligible weight, kinetic form, and virtual (imagined) volume is not sculpture in the traditional sense but something else—a hybrid of sculpture and theater; and recognitions like this lead him to an acknowledgment of an increased diversity of artistic types. A next step is his acceptance of the unprecedented perceptual experiences instigated by the new art forms. Indeed, precisely because his esthetic thinking is so free of a priori limitations (upon artistic forms, say, or systems of meaning), Moholy-Nagy can offer persuasive rationalizations for freedoms already forged in art. Underlying this acceptance is, nonetheless, a strong sense of the particular integrity and capabilities of both each traditional artistic medium and of each new inter-medium; so that just as an artist would be ill-advised to do in one form what could better succeed in another, so a critic should not judge a painting, say, or a mobile with criteria more relevant to literature.
To explain the evolution of art, especially stylistic change (which remains the basic evolutionary unit), Moholy-Nagy introduces a theme previously unknown in American esthetics (which has tended to avoid the issues of artistic genesis and transformation). This new kind of sociological explanation, which can be called technological determinism, deals with the impact of crucial machinery upon the creative sensibility. The modern end of the Renaissance mode of representational space, where a scene is portrayed “from an unchangeable, fixed point following the rules of the vanishing-point perspective,” is attributed to “speeding on the roads and circling in the skies....The man at the wheel sees persons and objects in quick succession, in permanent motion.” If technology transforms the sensibilities of both perceivers and creators, it follows that art created after the dissemination of radios and then television would differ from earlier art, and these differences would in turn reflect those new technologies. (This theme is more prominently developed in the sixties thought of Marshall McLuhan.)
Moholy-Nagy also regards technology as crucially changing the sum of materials available to artists and thus, again in turn, influencing stylistic development. For instance, the innovative design of even something as mundane as a chair reveals an indebtedness to “electricity, the gasoline and diesel engines, the airplane, motion pictures, color photography, radio, metallurgy, new alloys, plastics, laminated materials....” One obvious extension of this principle holds that electronic sound-generation not only creates an audibly different music but that the mere existence of electronic-assisted sound would also affect musical works which are composed entirely by non-electronic means. In addition, as technology continues to develop new forms, so will art. Extending this sense of history to politics, Moholy-Nagy suggests that changes in creativity and technology—both mind and matter—must necessarily precede transformations in society.
No American has done more to forge an esthetics for post-WWII advanced art than John Cage, perhaps because no other avant-garde artist or critic has so persistently insisted that radical developments in his own initial specialty—in this case, the composition of music—are relevant to other arts. Typically, those ideas suggesting esthetic respeculation have been scattered though Cage’s numerous lectures and interviews, his innumerable conversations both private and public, and the essays and texts he collected into three books of miscellaneous writings—Silence (1961), A Year from Monday (1967) and M. (1973). His esthetic philosophy is also articulated, largely by resonant implication, in his musical works.
Cage’s most general purpose could be defined as opening all esthetic activity to creative processes and perceptual experience unknown before; so that he came to regard as most laudable those contemporary works that realize a purposeful violation of old artistic ideas. “Art, if you want a definition of it,” he wrote, “is criminal action, because it conforms to no rules.” In order to transcend ingrained convention Cage frequently exhibits a dialectical intelligence that asserts art might be opposite of everything it once was; yet by making diametrically contrary esthetic statements, Cage thus makes possible a range of intermediate syntheses. For instance, if the aim of art was once the fabrication of a presentation that is as various and interesting as possible, Cage proposes creating something with minimal surface variety and little immediate interest, even espousing outright repetition and, thus, boredom as not only perceptually engrossing but fertilely inspiring (“The way to get ideas is to do something boring”):
In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring but very interesting.
(This concern with repetition to cunning excess is also found in the works of Gertrude Stein, who was probably the most consequential precursor of radical American esthetics.) Cage’s ideas have come to rationalize, for both better and worse, all in contemporary art that extends itself far more, in time and space, than was previously acceptable.
If past art aimed to display an artist’s esthetic conscience and the work’s essential organization, Cage advocates the use of procedures that would both minimize the artist’s taste and induce structural disorganization. In the case of music, for instance, this principle informs Cage’s invention of the prepared piano, where the strings’ original pitches and timbres are radically changed. Afterwards in Cage’s own career came chance operations in “composing” or writing out a score, so that traditional structures would assuredly be avoided; and then came the use of live-time machines, such as a turned-on radio with spinning dials, so that the sounds emitted could not be predicted in advance. All these rejections of previous constraints also function, intentionally and intelligently, to free artistic creation from personal control and, therefore, the resulting work from both conventions and cliché. In follows that, in sharp contrast to previous composers, Cage intends to avoid giving a score that is too specific to his performer-collaborators, thereby allowing them far more freedom of individual action than earlier musicians had. Indeed, he has followed his self-withdrawal logic to this radical esthetic definition: “Art instead of being an object made by one person is a process set in motion by a group of people.” This esthetic theme of art as process, rather than product, also had immense influence upon painting and sculpture (even in different styles), as well as dance and intermedia, all through the sixties and seventies.
In the end, Cage favors not artistic improvisation, which depends too much upon acquired habits (and, thus, conventions) but artistic indeterminacy—the creation of conditions or ground rules that force artists to work in unusual ways, which are in turn likely to produce unexpected (and thus unpredictable) results. Indeed, precisely in his preference for extreme originality and complex acoherence, coupled with his contempt for familiar objects and experiences, does Cage himself deny the absolute, indiscriminative license implied by his philosophy. His self-denying principles notwithstanding, Cage in practice usually retains some authority (invariably revealing ingenious and tasteful choices) over the frame of activity, thereby insuring, paradoxically, an art of purposeful purposelessness, as distinct from purposeless purposelessness. Indeed, the key to his artistic intelligence is precisely the imposition of general constraints that allow, if not induce, a circumscribed range of specific freedoms.
The artistic result of Cage’s strategy of freedom within subtle constraints has usually been fields of disordered activity that are formally beyond collage, which is merely a juxtaposition of several dissimilars. Instead, Cage realizes a far more multiple mélange that is without symbolic references, without a formal center, without distinct beginnings or ends (and thus, suggesting incompleteness). He regards such willful disorder as subtly naturalistic—as an “imitation of nature in her manner of operation.” More specifically, he initiates an ongoing event that is as formally non-climactic and internally repetitive as nature itself usually is; and this conclusion explodes the art-life dichotomy as well as the hierarchical structuring that were both sacred to traditional esthetics. (One byproduct of this last theme, the destruction of traditional artistic hierarchies, is the sociological exposure of previously under-examined dimensions of cultural authority and artists’ subservience.)
Precisely because Cage’s ideas rationalized works of art that a previous age (and archaic critics) would find hopelessly chaotic (or in violation of old rules), he came to insist that audiences accept disorder—in this case, atonal and astructural sound; so that in the course of reflecting the philosophic influence of Zen Buddhism, he asserts that not only must people perceive everything, but we must accept everything we perceive. However, this assertion too remains a dialectical antithesis in Cage’s ironically systematic, ironically extreme but highly suggestive esthetics.
It should not be forgotten that the “disintegration of form” that so alarmed conservative critics, such as Erich Kahler in his 1969 book of that title, actually indicates their own inability to grasp alternative formal structures (if not a first-hand ignorance of what they condemn); for in fact true formlessness in any created object or experience is impossible. Anything that can be characterized in one way rather than another, as resembling one thing rather than another thing, has, by that act of definition, a perceptible form. The non-hierarchical evenness or pure formal diffuseness that is characteristic of Cage’s own best art, for instance, reflects a kind of identifiable unity that, needless to say, is not emphasized in his philosophy of art.
Another Cagean strategy has been the creation of artworks or events that, though superficially trivial, have great resonance as implied philosophical statements. In his 4’33” (1952), for instance, an eminent pianist sits at his instrument and makes no audible piano sound for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Nothing happens, in a superficial sense; yet by making no-sound in a context where sound is expected, the piece implies that in the “silence” is the work’s sound—or more precisely, in all the random, surely atonal and astructural noises audibly within the frame of 4’33” was the “music.” Thus, the esthetic point, by inference, is that “art” consists of all the sensory phenomena that one chooses to perceive; the next inference holds that normal life is rich in art or esthetic experiences that are continually available to the spectator who attunes his sensory equipment.
Cage’s idea of art as anything that generates esthetic experience curiously carries John Dewey’s thinking to a philosophical extreme, as do Cage’s notions of art as revealing experiential reality and of the beholder as necessarily creating his own experience. In addition, 4’33”, for all of its originality, reveals a debt to Marcel Duchamp, whose great innovative idea consisted of imposing, by means of art rather than argument, esthetic value on things which were not initially, or previously, endowed with artistic status.
Just as the radical gesture in Cage’s esthetics lay in his justifying the creation and acceptance of perceptual disorder, somewhat similar concerns inform Morse Peckham’s highly idiosyncratic and provocative essay on Man’s Rage for Chaos (1965), which is indicatively sub-titled “Biology, Behavior, and the Arts.” Drawing upon a scholarly background in English literature and cultural history, its author suggests that, though man craves order in his life, esthetic experience “serves to break up orientations, to weaken and frustrate the tyrannous drive to order, to prepare the individual to observe what the orientation tells him is irrelevant, but what may well be highly relevant.” This emphasis upon the individual’s experience of art, as well as the method of deducing artistic value from an idealization of perceptual processes, also resembles John Dewey (who likewise confessed to more interest in behavior than art); but quite contrary to Dewey, who wanted art to provide artistic order for the sake of common experience, Peckham takes the radical tact of advocating artistic disorder on humane grounds. “Art is the reinforcement of the capacity to endure disorientation,” his book concludes, “so that man may endure exposing himself to the tensions and problems of the real world....Art is rehearsal for the orientation which makes innovation possible.” By implication, then, the new forms of “disordered” art better prepare our perceptual equipment to comprehend the unprecedented structures of contemporary life; but in philosophical contrast to Cage, Peckham advocates disorder with respect to previous art (or conventions), not in imitation of life-like processes.
Peckham is by training a scholar-critic of literature; Cage initially a creator, finally in more arts than music. Another philosopher of the new art was at his professional beginnings a painter who also took degrees in philosophy and art-history; so that Allan Kaprow’s most important text, Assemblage, Environments & Happenings (1966, though first drafted and circulated several years before) exhibits a participant-observer’s synthesis of both involvement and distance—an intelligent awareness of both personal experience and esthetic issues. A sometime composition student of John Cage, Kaprow assimilated his teacher’s passion for stretching both the creative imagination on one hand and the receptive sensibility on the other. Indicatively, he first became known for advocating, in a 1958 essay on “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” the use of all possible materials and “unheard-of happenings and events” in the processes and preoccupations of painting—a position ultimately indebted to Marcel Duchamp, with a nod to Cage. Kaprow’s book brilliantly outlines an evolution, in part his own, from collaged painting to assemblages (or three-dimensional collage) to environments (or artistically enclosed spaces), and finally to a mixed-means performance art that he characterized in retrospect as “a collage of events in certain spans of time and in certain spaces.” In short, Kaprow follows Moholy-Nagy in advocating the rejection of conventional barriers between the arts; and like Cage, Kaprow challenges the traditional distinction between art and life. In Kaprow’s thinking, the latter position demands, first of all, the strict elimination in one’s creative practice of the materials, actions, and themes indigenous to earlier arts:
A picture, a piece of music, a poem, a drama, each confined within its respective frame, fixed number of measures, stanzas, and stages, however great they may be in their own right, simply will not allow for breaking the barrier between art and life. And this is what the objective is.
Indeed, the new art Kaprow invented, to which he gave the unfortunately catchy name of “a happening,” is perhaps the closest that art has yet come to meshing with life (and reducing the “psychic distance” of traditional esthetic experience), while yet retaining a distinct artistic, non-life identity. The crucial point for the philosophy of art lay in the fact that a true happening—a performance occurring outside a theatrical setting, completely open (or unfixed) in both time and space, and involving everyone who happens to be within its frame of activity—was by intention as unpredictable, impermanent, and changing as life itself. Nonetheless, the endeavor still satisfied an old definition of art as reflecting more or less deliberate operations—in this case, the scenario of roughly outlined activities that the happenings-artist provided in advance to his prospective collaborators.
“At present,” Kaprow’s book concludes, “any avant-garde is primarily a philosophical quest and a finding of truths, rather than purely an esthetic activity,” so that whereas Cage offered an esthetic for unpredictability (and the acceptance of happenstance), Kaprow forged instead a philosophy advocating impermanence on one hand, and an art independent of any objective forms on the other. “Once, the task of the artist was to make good art,” he wrote in a manifesto first published in 1966, “now it is to avoid making art of any kind.” What, then, is the “artist” to do? Kaprow’s answer was anything, regardless of exhibited craftsmanship or permanence, yet with both the intention of uniqueness and the awareness that his doings would probably be recognized as artistic endeavor.
The decision to be an artist thus assumes both the existence of a unique activity and an endless series of deeds which deny it....Anything I say, do, notice, or think, is art—whether or not desired—because everyone else aware of what is occurring today will probably (not possibly) say, do notice, or think of it as art at some time or other.
Kaprow’s ideas, along with such examples of inferential art as Cage’s 4’33”, forge an idealist philosophy of art, which bases significance primarily upon perception and contextual awareness (rather than the art object). Several radical implications of this view were brilliantly developed by another artist-critic, Michael Kirby—first in Happenings (1965), and then in essays, especially “The Aesthetics of the Avant-Garde,” he collected in The Art of Time (1969).
The contemporary impact of epistemological empiricism, as well as analytic philosophy, inspires the ideal of a rigorously empirical esthetics. This would be capable of clearly distinguishing analytic elucidation from evaluation, and then of making precisely accurate statements which, as a prime criterion of acceptability, could be verified, in roughly similar form, by every equally knowledgeable observer. Of course, such empirical esthetics would become valuable only to the extent that the commentaries of its exponents moved beyond inarguable facts and superficial descriptions to more profound critical illuminations that would, nonetheless, exhibit a logical consistency, linguistic precision, and verifiable accuracy previously unknown in discourse about art. In a retrospective summary, written in 1951, of a program first presented in his earlier essay “Scientific Method in Esthetics” (1928), Thomas Munro championed “a scientific, naturalistic approach to aesthetics: one which should be broadly experimental and empirical, but not limited to quantitative measurement; utilizing the insights of art criticism and philosophy as hypotheses, but deriving objective data from two main sources—the analysis and history of form in the arts, and psychological studies of the production, appreciation, and teaching of the arts. However, as Munro himself is more a prodigiously thorough scholar and decisive theorist, his own major contributions have been not a philosophy of art but exhaustive and definitive studies of, first, the categories of artistic endeavor, The Arts and Their Interrelations (1949), and then historiography theories of Evolution and Art (1963). (One result of analytic philosophy alone—especially Ludwig Wittgenstein’s influence—has been an academic concern with the language of art and literary criticism.)
Among the more eccentrically suggestive, and yet patently unsuccessful American attempts at an empirical theory of artistic value were the foolishly simplistic algebraic formulas that the Harvard mathematician George Birkhoff proposed in his Aesthetic Measure (1933):
M = O/C
where, “within each class of aesthetic objects,” M equals esthetic measure, O is order, and C is complexity. However, one problem with this “quantitative index of [art objects’] comparative esthetic effectiveness” is that it offered no empirical method for specifying the exact degree of each factor in the equation—for verifiably quantifying the components. A second problem with Birkhoff’s formula is that it measures unity in variety, which is at best only one of several dimensions of artistic value. Such deductive theorizing, in contrast to the inductive generalizations more appropriate to science, prompted Thomas Munro himself to comment in 1946 that quantitative esthetics so far “has dealt less with works of art than with preferences for various arbitrary, simplified linear shapes, color combinations, and tone-combinations.”
Beyond that, the new, post-WWII scientific hypotheses of communication—information theory and cybernetics—both suggested schemes of esthetic understanding. The first, for instance, promises a quantitative measure of the experience flowing from a work of art to its receptor—not the content of these transmitted messages, but the size of its channel, the amount of communication precisely measured in “bits,” and its quality in terms of essential information versus redundancy. Though several writers—John R. Pierce, Leonard Meyer, and Lejaren Hiller, among them—have attempted to derive esthetic hypotheses from information theory, no new major ideas have yet emerged. Cybernetics, which emphasizes responsiveness within a closed system, offers ideas relevant less to static art than, say, to that new art form which emerged in the sixties—responsive kinetic environments; but here too, no esthetic theory has yet been fully developed. There is no doubt that a truly persuasive empirical esthetics would represent a great intellectual advance, especially with an artistic generation less eager than its predecessor to rescue art from science. The result might well supercede previous esthetics much as physics replaced some terrains of metaphysics. While the inadequacies of the forays so far suggest that the procedures used to encapsulate primary physical nature may have less relevance to the artifacts of secondary nature, the philosophy of art could probably profit from emulating the rigor, objectivity, and decisiveness of scientific discourse.
A continuing, but somewhat peripheral concern of recent American esthetics has been the difference between art and sub-art. The latter is not synonymous with “non-art” or “anti-art,” both of which are by now thought to be historically relative terms (last year’s “anti-art” often becoming tomorrow’s conventions). Rather, the term refers to that kind of commercialized “popular art” or “mass art” that became prominent in the nineteenth century and, thanks to advertising and mass-merchandizing, increasingly pervasive in the twentieth. One of the first major analyses of sub-art came from the critic Clement Greenberg (himself an able advocate of modernism in all culture) whose 1939 essay on “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” made the decisive distinctions that influenced future esthetic discussion. True arts, in his view, “derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in” and an awareness of artistic history, while kitsch is subservient both to established artistic formulas, and, usually, to the prospect of an immanent sale. Different in intention and intrinsic nature, kitsch and art also vary in effect. Innovative art at first strikes its spectator as puzzling, if not inscrutable, inevitably creating its awn audience of admirers, while kitsch exploits stereotyped understanding for a pre-conditioned public, if dealing finally in “the lowest common denominators of experience.” In contrast to kitsch, which cultivates the effects of art (and often programs an unmistakable response), avant-garde art, as noted already, defines its integrity by a capacity for genuine surprise. “Avant-garde culture is the imitation of imitating,” Greenberg continues, as “its best artists are artist’s artists, its best poets, poet’s poets.” The difference between kitsch and avant-garde (synonymous in Greenberg’s mind with all that remains relevant in contemporary culture) is so great that they have nothing in common beyond cultural ancestry and superficial mediumistic resemblances.
Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our time.
The social origins of kitsch, in Greenberg’s view, lies not in capitalism per se, as most “left” critics charged, but in modern industrial society, which on one hand induces mass-merchandizing of all objects that could be manufactured in unlimited numbers and, on the other, created the “urban masses” that became the most eager consumers of kitsch. The Soviet Union, he hastens to point out, suffers as much kitsch as the U.S.
The issue of mass culture continued to preoccupy many American intellectuals, scarcely a few of whom were also as attuned to genuine art as Greenberg. (Most of them, one suspected, studied tripe because they preferred it to art, or at least found kitsch more susceptible to glib analysis.) Whereas the sociologist customarily studies kitsch’s relationship to its audience, esthetic discussion emphasizes its intrinsic nature and purposes; and while critical and moral reasoning could separate one kind of kitsch from another, the esthetic point remained—that kitsch is not art but sub-art. The first real contribution after Greenberg’s formulation came from Marshall McLuhan in The Mechanical Bride, written during the War but not published until 1951. Here McLuhan examines mass-cultural artifacts with a critical sensibility honed on the close rhetorical analysis of English literature; and this approach enabled him to perceive that the representational discontinuity distinguishing modernist painting and literature also characterizes, for one example, the newspaper’s front page with its discontinuous field of unrelated articles, oversized headlines and occasional captioned pictures:
It is on its technical and mechanical side that the front page is linked to the techniques of modern science and art. Discontinuity is in different ways a basic concept of both quantum and relativity physics....Notoriously, it is the visual technique of a Picasso, the literary technique of James Joyce.
The Mechanical Bride broached two esthetic themes that McLuhan develops more prominently in his later works—that this discontinuity reflects the impact of electronic information technology (such as, in the example at hand, the wire news service) and that, differences in quality notwithstanding, “The great work of a period has much in common with the poorest work.” All this insight into mass culture does not prevent McLuhan from proposing a necessary measure for distinguishing art from kitsch—“how heavy a demand it makes on the intelligence? How inclusive a consciousness does it focus?” (The “pop” paintings of the sixties, it should be noted, do not deny this distinction; for though the artist has appropriated subject matter drawn from kitsch, the best works turn this mundane material to highly sophisticated and uncommon ends.)
Nothing indicates more conclusively the obsolescence of traditional esthetics than the irrelevance of its favorite terms, and as such earlier phrases as “beauty” and “aesthetic distance” lose their currency, the times become ripe for a new esthetic philosophy. Much of this opportunity has been assumed, albeit circuitously, by artists and critics, at least in America, so that by now a substantial intellectual structure can inform intuitive and/or sensory sympathy for the new art. The final result has been a perceptual emphasis that ultimately underscores a highly idealist (and almost solipsistic) philosophy of art, which encompasses such radical propositions as Marshall McLuhan’s “Art is anything you [the artist] can get away with,” and Cage’s hypothesis that art is anywhere, and everywhere, that the spectator wishes to perceive it (e.g., “Theater takes place all the time, wherever one is. And Art simply facilitates persuading one this is the case”).
This new esthetics has, it is true, won more acceptance from artists than literary people, but the revolutions of modernism have always first occurred in the non-literary arts. Nonetheless, ignorance of these ideas, like responses proclaiming “hoax” and/or “not art,” will usually serve to identify a commentator as fundamentally philistine, no matter how well “educated” he superficially seems. Only this new esthetics, rather than an older one, can assimilate the artistic innovations of the past decade—not just mixed-means events, artistic machines, and kinetic environments, but also conceptual art, experimental literature and works revealing the impact of new technologies of mental change. Contemporary art is, in truth, “the only art we have”: and as it continually changes, so there is an unending need for an esthetic philosophy that is, as Croce put it, “always renewed and always renewing.”
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