Selective sense of aesthetic progress in bad taste?

Encyclopedia of Aesthetics

September 10, 1999

It would be hard to gainsay the achievement of this encyclopedia. In four huge volumes, each the size of a telephone directory, it attempts a coverage of the vaguely bounded subject of aesthetics as never before. On the whole the project is very successfully carried out - as well as it could be in a subject where controversy over its very nature reigns. No such work can hope to satisfy all of the people all of the time; but this should manage to satisfy as many people as possible most of the time. All one could reasonably expect, with the proviso made below, is here, from "Abhinavagupta" to "Zhuangzi".

With a reference source like this a reviewer has two main matters to consider. One is the choice of entries, and the other is their quality. These days when such books are checked by a distinguished editorial board, unless something has gone seriously awry, the quality should be a foregone conclusion. And so it proves in this case; in fact it excels itself in many instances. There is a wonderful clarity in some of the entries that indicates a secure editorial hand and reflects credit on the work of the many contributors. For instance, I have never read a better explanation of the the basis of Kant's aesthetics; Hume is just as good; and so is the entry on Schopenhauer. One can find fault here and there: the entry concerning the definition of art is rather brief, perhaps reflecting the anti-essentialist belief, implied in the introduction by editor Michael Kelly, that such debates are ultimately futile. But overall there can be nothing but praise.

In commenting further, I shall concentrate on music, because I know most about it. But I have no doubt that the same applies in general to the choice of entries for the other arts.

The choice of entries is trickier. While they are generally unexceptionable, there is an indication, despite protestation to the contrary by Kelly, that there is a systematic view of the history of aesthetics and art at work, perhaps even unconsciously. It might be called progressivism. This runs counter to the claimthat there is no "effort made to shape a system or grand narrative of aesthetics".

The existence of such a narrative in the Encyclopedia is reflected particularly in the choice of artists, rather than of aestheticians or philosophers. Consider the separate entries for composers: Stravinsky, but no Shostakovich; Boulez, but no Vaughan Williams; Schoenberg, but no Sibelius; John Cage, but no Debussy. It might just be that these individuals did not write on matters relevant to aesthetics (although that would be false in case of Vaughan Williams). But even taking this into account, surely their art says something about aesthetics. Sibelius in both word and music emphasised that form is all important in music, contrary to Mahler (another composer with no separate entry) with his world-encompassing view of the ambition of symphonies.

I suspect that the art of those excluded from the Encyclopedia is deemed not to fit the idea that art is and should be progressive; that it has a direction, and gets there by reacting to what precedes it by radical discontinuity. This implies that some art is regressive, left behind, or out of time, as a consequence of the ever-forward movement.

One of the main criteria for inclusion of entries is "philosophical or critical significance in the histories of aesthetics, art, or fields related to aesthetics or art". As art, not just aesthetic criticism, is included in this we can surely ask: Is Cage a more important or significant composer than Debussy? Is Boulez a more important artist than Sibelius? It is a pointed example because Sibelius was once described by Boulez as a waste of time and was further lambasted by Adorno.

This is clearly not meant to be a history of art. Nevertheless the choice of entries surely reflects a tacit and elevated evaluation of what is seen as reactive radical art: that which furthers some journey art is supposedly making. Progress - in the sense of reactive rejection - means better.

I do not say that there is no argument for this, although it is an assumption that has been highly destructive in my view, leading to the neglect and denigration of those artists who do not fit the progressive picture. Look at the neglect of the music of William Alwyn, another composer who fails to get a mention, let alone an entry, despite his perspicacious remarks about the nature of composing.

So what is objectionable, although not surprising, is not so much that a narrative about art is present, but that this narrative - while fundamentally shaping our picture of art - goes undefended (although it is discussed in certain entries) and influences the shaping of the Encyclopedia . At the same time the reader is led to believe there is no narrative of any kind underpinning the volumes.

This could easily lead a reader to believe that the volumes are more neutral than they are, overlooking the tacit ideology. However, it must be said that the selection of aestheticians and philosophers, as opposed to artists, is mostly untainted by this unspoken progressivism.

Another odd omission is that of Leonard Bernstein, who is completely unmentioned. Leaving aside his conducting and composing, one might have thought his important work developed in the 1970s Harvard lectures, relating Noam Chomsky's structural linguistics and deep grammar to music, might have justified his inclusion.

That said, the Encyclopedia is an outstanding achievement, in which the entries cannot fail to illuminate through the quality and clarity of their scholarship. No library (the Encyclopedia may be beyond the means of many individuals) aiming to provide adequate support for the study of aesthetics should be without it.

John Shand is associate lecturer in philosophy, Open University.

Encyclopedia of Aesthetics: four volumes

Editor - Michael Kelly
ISBN - 0 19 511307 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £300.00 (set)
Pages - 2,184

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