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Wanderings among theoreticians

I just sent in final revisions on the final proofs for my book on liberalism and what to do about it, so I’ve gone back to the more pleasant, more interesting, and very likely more productive investigation of architecture—the brick-and-mortar side of our social environment.

One thing leads to another, especially on the web, so architecture theory led to art theory. Which turns out to be quite interesting in itself, at least in parts. Here are some highlights from the day’s reading:

  • Nick Zangwill in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on aesthetic judgement. He goes to some trouble to defend the view that aesthetic judgements can be correct or incorrect. He also points out that aesthetic properties are dependent on non-aesthetic properties like the physical arrangement of paint on canvas. He says though that “there are no interesting nonaesthetic-to-aesthetic laws, rules or principles … there are no laws of taste, and aesthetic properties are anomalous” (in the sense of lacking a nomos or law).

    It’s altogether an odd situation. B depends completely on A, but there’s no principle at all that takes you from A to B.

  • An extract from Clive Bell on art and significant form. He takes the over-the-top view that the object represented is absolutely irrelevant to the aesthetic aspects of a piece. Only Philistines confuse art with illustration.

    I think he has a point with primitive art, which is what he says he likes best. In Romanesque and pre-Columbian sculpture the form can be wonderful and profound while the images are comical (Romanesque) or alarming (Mayan). So in those cases form, it may be, is indeed everything.

    But is the fact that visual art has usually been representative simply a happenstance irrelevancy? is it irrelevant to the aesthetic value of classic Greek statues, the Discobolus or whatever, that they are representations of human beings? Seems unlikely. Art can be about something other than itself, through representation or symbolism for example, and that can be part of what makes a piece what it is.

  • The entry in the SEP on the definition of art. What’s interesting there are the definitions concocted in recent years to validate current practices. Arthur Danto for example seems to define art as pretty much any gesture that makes sense if you’re part of the artistic in crowd, while George Dickie defines it as anything created by an artist-participant for presentation to other participants in the “artworld” (which has become a technical philosophical term). Contrary to Bell, it seems, art can be all reference, with no intrinsic positive qualities at all.

These writers are intelligent and they’re all writing about something worth writing about: pure design, art as something physical that goes beyond the physical, art as gesture among people who have inherited a communal concern with art in a more traditional sense. Still, each view has its limits. Bell and Zangwill can’t make out the connection between aesthetic form and other aspects of the world, while Danto and Dickie make you wonder why anyone would care about contemporary artworld art when it’s become so self-referential and content-free. Reading them makes me think all the more highly of people like Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros, who tell us how form becomes good form and how it connects to everything else.