Art and History: Taking the Past Seriously
1. Aesthetics and the history of art
In an interesting recent volume entitled Art History versus Aesthetics, one commentator on the contemporary scene aptly observes that the disciplines of aesthetics and art history, which seem prima facie to have so many interests in common, in fact live in different worlds and ‘pass each other like ships in the night.’1 It is doubtless a moot point whether responsibility for this state of affairs lies principally with art historians or with aestheticians but the present paper’s focus of interest is the discipline of aesthetics and I will argue here that aesthetics is far from blameless in the matter, and that, for some considerable time now, writers in this field have not paid sufficient attention to history. ‘History’ in this instance does not of course mean the history of aesthetics itself, a topic on which there has been no shortage of comment. The history in question is the history – the past – of art. In a nutshell, this paper will argue the perhaps controversial claim that aesthetics has not been taking the past seriously.
Most of the following remarks will concern visual art, not because what is said is not also relevant to literature and music, but because in the case of visual art there just happens to be much more ‘history’ extant – that is, more art that has survived for longer periods of time. The theme being history, visual art is, therefore, a more plentiful source of evidence.
2. The modern world of art
It is useful to begin by reflecting briefly on just how large a part the art of the past, including the past of cultures other than our own, plays in the world of art as we know it today. We need only step across the threshold of any major art museum, such as the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or even just browse in the visual art section of any major bookshop, to remind ourselves that our modern world of art is very much more than the world of modern art. We readily accept of course that it also means Western art since the Renaissance – the Courbets, the Titians and the Botticellis. But now, in addition, it means a wealth of pre-Renaissance art, such as Gothic, Romanesque and Byzantine, which had rarely gained admittance to an art museum until the twentieth century. And even more strikingly – a thing quite unheard-of a century ago – it also includes the painting and sculpture of a wide variety of non-European cultures, past and present, such as ancient Egypt, Pre-Columbian Mexico, India, Africa, the islands of the Pacific, and even Palaeolithic times.2 The world of art today, in short, is very different from the one our quite recent forebears knew – even though they were often quite familiar with many of the objects we now call art. We today have entered what the French theorist, André Malraux, aptly calls the ‘first universal world of art’3 – a world which (unlike that, for example, of the eighteenth century thinkers whose writings are often regarded as foundational texts for modern aesthetics) embraces works from the four corners of the earth and from cultures stretching back to the dawn of prehistory.
3. Perspectives of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists
Now, this being so, it's not surprising that historians, archaeologists and anthropologists have occasionally taken an interest in the matter. In particular, they have, from time to time, asked how the works from other cultures now found in our art museums were regarded by those cultures themselves. Granted, they say, that these works are ‘art’ for us, what were they for the peoples for whom they were originally created?
Most students of aesthetics are familiar with the kinds of answers that have been given to this question, so it will sufficient to provide a few representative examples:
· The well known anthropologist, Raymond Firth, has written that ‘the concept “art” as such is alien to the practice and presumably the thought of many of the peoples studied by anthropologists.’4
· The archaeologist, Gay Robins, writes that: ‘as far as we know, the ancient Egyptians had no word that corresponds exactly to our abstract use of the word “art”. They had words for individual types of monuments that we today regard as examples of Egyptian art – “statues”, “stela”, “tomb” – but there is no reason to believe that these words necessarily included an aesthetic dimension in their meaning.’5
· The historian, Paul Kristeller, argues that there are major differences between the meaning the term art had acquired in the West by the eighteenth century and the closest Greek and Roman equivalents.6
· And, in a statement that neatly sums up these ideas, André Malraux writes that ‘a major part of our art heritage has been bequeathed to us by men and women for whom the idea of art was not the same as our own, or by those for whom the idea did not even exist.’7
4. The problem
As indicated, most students of aesthetics are already familiar with comments of this kind and will not be greatly surprised by them. The challenge, however, is to decide how one might respond. The central problem seems clear enough: When we today use the concept ‘art’ – a concept central to aesthetics as we know it, and indeed part of our everyday vocabulary where certain kinds of painting, literature and music are concerned – we are, apparently, thinking in terms that would simply have made no sense to people in many cultures of the past – cultures from which, nevertheless, many of the objects we now call art have come. This, surely, is a serious problem – a state of affairs that is very difficult to ignore and which, on the face of it at least, seems to pose a major challenge to our own ways of thinking.
5. Responses by philosophers of art
So how should philosophers of art respond to this problem – this challenge?
There seem to be three principal kinds of possible response.
First, one can simply ignore the whole matter, and regard historical and anthropological findings of the kind mentioned simply as strange aberrations best forgotten about. In other words, one can turn a blind eye to the whole issue and systematically exclude any discussion of it from the philosophy of art.
Second, one can acknowledge the evidence, admit that it is probably accurate, but argue that it is really only of marginal importance – interesting, certainly, but in the end not central to any serious analysis of the nature of art.
And third, one can attempt to develop a philosophy of art that takes this evidence directly into account – an analysis that fully accepts that the notion of art was foreign to other cultures, and integrates that fact into the core of its account of what art is.
The following remarks will focus principally on the second alternative. The first – that we simply turn a blind eye to the whole matter – must, surely, rule itself out. Any discipline that, as a matter of principle, chooses to ignore findings or currents of thought in other disciplines is surely courting the danger of fossilisation, and that is certainly not a fate one would wish on aesthetics. So this alternative does not even seem to merit serious consideration.
The third option – that we should develop a theory of art that integrates evidence of the kind mentioned into the core of its thinking – will also be set to one side. The concluding remarks to this paper will suggest that this is in fact the route that modern aesthetics needs to adopt, but to explain what this might involve would call for an explanation of at least the major features of such a theory of art and that task (which I have undertaken elsewhere) is beyond the scope of the present paper.
The focus of attention will be the second option – that we should acknowledge the accuracy of the evidence, but nonetheless restrict historical questions to the margins of our thinking about art. This alternative merits our attention because it is the one most frequently preferred by contemporary aesthetics – especially aesthetics of the ‘analytic’ variety – and also because, as we shall see, it is open to some serious objections. We shall begin by examining the two arguments most commonly used to justify this approach.
6. The ‘What’s in a name?’ argument
The first argument strikes a pose of hard-nosed realism and says, in effect: ‘What’s in a name?’ Admittedly, the argument goes, not all cultures possessed a word equivalent in meaning to our term art, but most, nevertheless, seem to have engaged in some form of painting, sculpture, verse, song, dance etc. So, while they might not have used the same name, the thing itself has always been the same, so let’s not be distracted by questions of mere terminology.8
This argument collapses even under elementary scrutiny. Can one seriously define art simply as ‘painting, sculpture, verse, song, dance, etc’? That is, can one seriously suggest that the meaning of the term art is sufficiently captured merely by listing a series of physical objects and activities? One can, of course, disagree about what, precisely, the term art does signify, and that, obviously, is what the philosophy of art spends much of its time doing. But something most philosophers of art are surely unlikely to accept is that the idea named by the term art is sufficiently defined by reducing it to nothing more than a bare list of this kind – which, for example, says nothing at all about the purposes or significance of the objects and activities so named. Despite a certain surface appeal, this objection ends up, in short, being too hard-nosed by half. Its implications are severely reductionist and quickly lead to absurdity.
7. The ‘universal notion of art’ argument
The second argument in favour of marginalising historical evidence is somewhat more substantial. In summary, the claim is this: Despite the varying customs and beliefs we observe among different cultures, we can, nevertheless, discern the features of a universal concept of art beneath these variations – a concept that is applicable to all cultures and all times. Certainly, it is conceded, we should not ignore the information provided by historians and anthropologists, but if we look attentively, we will see that, beneath it all, the features of an enduring, universal notion of art can always be discerned.
We can give this argument a little more bite by considering a relatively recent formulation of it in Dennis Dutton’s essay, ‘But they don't have our concept of art’, which is included in the well known volume Theories of Art Today, edited by Noël Carroll.9 Dutton’s essay has the advantage that it is a clear and eloquent defence of the argument in question, so one is never in doubt about the claims being advanced.
Briefly stated, Dutton's reasoning is that in all human societies, large or small, ‘the arts’ (to use his term) are always associated with certain ‘features’ or ‘practices’ that distinguish them from other activities, and which, he says, ‘[make] possible cross-cultural discourse about art in general’. Dutton proposes eight such characteristic features or practices but we need not consider them all here. (He suggests, moreover, that the list is not exhaustive and that there are ‘other potential candidates.’) By way of example, however, three of the eight are: the ‘exercise of a specialized skill’, the desire to ‘represent or imitate real and imaginary experience of the world’, and an intention to ‘afford pleasure’ to an audience. These features, Dutton writes, are not simply ones that characterise ‘art in our sense’ but features that ‘characterise it throughout the whole of human history’.10
Now, even on first encounter, these proposed ‘features’ and ‘practices’ raise some obvious problems. ‘Specialised skill’, for example, would presumably be required to produce many objects that would not necessarily be regarded as works of art – such as clothing, boats, houses etc. A particular kind of ‘specialised skill’ must therefore be intended and it is not clear how one would specify which kind without arguing in a circle that it is the kind required to produce art. The suggestion that art is characterised by a desire to ‘represent or imitate real and imaginary experience of the world’ is no less problematical because it seems to assume that representation, or mimesis, is an essential feature of art, a view that many people – the present writer included – would be very reluctant to accept. And, finally, while one might perhaps argue that ‘affording pleasure to an audience’ may be the aim of some artists, such as a Boucher or a Cabanel, and composers of ‘light’ or ‘pop’ music, or writers of ‘true romance’ novels, one might well question whether it is the aim of (for example) the carvers of many African masks, of Goya in a work such as Saturn devouring his children, of Grünewald in his Isenheim Altarpiece, of Dostoyevsky in The Possessed, and of many other artists whose works seem designed to evoke feelings of a far more profound, and often more disturbing, kind than mere pleasure.
These are fairly self-evident objections and we will not dwell on them. There is, moreover, a problem of a less obvious, but even more serious, kind – and one that is endemic in arguments of the kind under consideration. When one looks again at Dutton’s proposed list of universal features or practices, one sees that, despite its apparently broad scope – since it includes a range of ideas that aesthetics often associates with art – the list is in fact highly selective. For, on closer inspection, one sees that it is limited exclusively to features or practices that modern Western thinking already tends, rightly or wrongly, to associate with art – such as specialised skill, representation, affording pleasure, etc. But that is where it stops. Features or practices often associated with non-European artefacts in their original contexts – with African masks or Egyptian sculpture, for example – include the many different roles such objects played in religious ceremony and ritual, and these features or practices are quite absent from Dutton’s list. In other words, the evidence has, consciously or unconsciously, been filtered in advance, and the only factors that have been allowed to count are those which, rightly or wrongly, we in modern Western culture already tend to associate with art. It is as if one were setting up as both jury and advocate: one not only gives a verdict on the basis of the evidence, one also excludes evidence that might seem unfavourable.
Moreover, if the analysis is reversed, one can readily think of features and practices commonly associated with Western art today that were non-existent in the cultures in which many objects now regarded as art originated. An obvious example is the public exhibition in art museums of objects deemed to be art, a practice once quite unknown in non-Western cultures, and indeed in Western culture itself until relatively recent times. Another is the careful preservation of objects regarded as works of art, a practice taken as a given in modern Western culture but by no means universal in the cultures in which many of the objects originated.11
These remarks are not intended as an attack on Dutton’s essay in particular. The essay has been chosen because it is representative of a fairly common line of argument and because it happens to state that argument with considerable clarity. The analysis does, however, alert us to the very real danger of wearing culturally tinted spectacles without being aware of doing so. Effectively, what Dutton and others who argue in similar ways do is to choose a list of factors that one can, on the basis of thinking in Western aesthetics, more or less plausibly associate with art, and then use that list as a benchmark for a universal idea of art. In other words, to repeat, the evidence has been filtered in advance. Ultimately, this is another example of the tendency of modern aesthetics not to take the evidence of history and anthropology seriously. It is an approach that reserves the right to pick and choose – not on the basis of the reliability and persuasiveness of the evidence (which, of course, would be perfectly acceptable) but on the basis of a pre-determined theoretical position which the evidence is, in effect, not permitted to call into question.
8. Levinson’s attempt to ‘define art historically’
As we have suggested, this tendency not to take the evidence of history and anthropology seriously is a widespread feature of contemporary aesthetics and, as a further illustration, it is worth commenting briefly on one more example which arises in a rather different context – in this case as part of Jerrold Levinson’s attempt to ‘define art historically’ to borrow his phrase.
Levinson’s thesis in this context is quite well known and probably needs little introduction. Essentially, it involves an attempt to add an historical dimension to an ‘extrinsic’ definition of art, leading to the claim that ‘something is art if and only if it was intended or projected for overall regard as some prior art is or was correctly regarded.12 In effect, art is defined in terms of a chain of ‘art-regards’ receding into the past, or as Levinson puts it,
What it is for a thing to be art at any time can eventually be exhibited in this manner by starting with the present and working backward. New art is art because of this relation to past art, art of the recent past is art because of this relation to art of the not-so-recent past, … [and so on]13
This claim has elicited a number of criticisms, many of which are not directly relevant to our present concerns. One writer, however, has raised an objection that is both relevant and very telling. Claire Detels has pointed out that if we wished to include Gregorian chant, for example, under the rubric art, we would, according to Levinson, need to ask ‘if a particular piece of Gregorian chant was intended for regard-as-a-work-of-art in any of the ways works of art existing prior to it had been correctly regarded.’ The question, Detels observes, is by no means easy to answer because the evidence is quite limited. In addition, she continues,
What evidence there is suggests that Gregorian chant should be excluded, since it was more a part of liturgical practice than something regarded as a work of art (whatever that might be inferred to mean ca.800 A.D.)14
In other words, one does not need to go far back in time (relatively speaking) to find societies in which the supposed chain of ‘art-regards’ simply peters out, thus excluding from the rubric art not only Gregorian chant, of course, but a wide range of other works currently regarded as works of art which originated in cultures in which the idea of art was unknown. These comments, again, are not intended as an attack on Levinson in particular, but they do, once again, point to a reluctance to take history seriously. Despite an expressed wish to ‘define art historically’, Levinson in fact takes a very limited view of what history might mean and of where historical evidence might be permitted to lead us.
There is, of course, no doubt that the central point made in this paper raises a number of difficult questions. If one claims that in the cultures of origin, the attitude towards large numbers of the objects that we today call art had nothing to do with the idea of art, how does one explain the fact that for us today these same objects are often regarded as art – and in many cases great art? Have objects which were created for some other purpose somehow ‘become’ art? If so, how does one explain this transformation – this metamorphosis? And would we perhaps even be committed to the view that the idea of art itself is somehow a transient feature in the human landscape – that the very subject of aesthetics – art – should be placed under a sign of impermanence?
As indicated earlier, the answers to these questions would take us beyond the scope of the present discussion since it would require an explanation of the key features of an alternative approach to the theory of art.15 At the present time, moreover, the first priority seems less to produce answers than simply to recognise the nature and importance of the problem. As pointed out earlier, the world of art today is much more than the world of modern art – far more, for example, than works such as Duchamp’s Fountain or Warhol’s’ Brillo Boxes, which tend to figure so prominently in contemporary debates in aesthetics. Our world of art today encompasses objects from the whole sweep of the human past, stretching back to the remotest times and taking in a wealth of non-European cultures. If we ignore this fact we are surely ignoring the reality of what art means in the twenty-first century – and what it has meant for many decades now. Careful historical, archaeological and anthropological research – research that cannot merely be brushed aside – tells us that in many, in fact most, of these cultures the idea of art played no part whatsoever, and that the ‘practices’, to borrow Dennis Dutton’s term, which we today take for granted in connection with art – such as preservation, public exhibition of works from a range of cultures, etc – were equally unknown. If modern aesthetics wishes to establish a firm connection with this vastly expanded modern world of art – so different from what it was even a century ago – it must surely acknowledge the need to deal squarely with these matters and with the questions that flow from them (which include the intriguing question of why today’s world of art has expanded so dramatically). The analysis offered in this paper suggests that at present this is not happening and that, to the extent history is considered at all, its significance is minimised and marginalised. The consequences of this approach, if it continues, will almost certainly be that aesthetics and art history will continue to ‘pass each other like ships in the night’. And just as importantly, it will mean that the questions posed by so many of the objects from the past we encounter in our art museums will continue to be questions about which contemporary aesthetics has nothing significant to say.
This is not to deny
that the works of some of these cultures had become the focus of
historical and archeological interest in the course of the nineteenth
century. The point here, however,
concerns their acceptance as art – alongside the Rembrandts, the
etc. The history of major Western
museums shows clearly that the works of these cultures (like those of
pre-Renaissance Europe) were only included in general collections in
decades of the twentieth century, and even then only gradually.
See, for example: Bickford
Berzock, Kathleen. "African Art
at the Art Institute of
"Art and Anthropology." Anthropology,
Art and Aesthetics. eds.
Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992). p.15-39.
Cf. also: ‘None of the native languages of
6 Kristeller writes inter alia: ‘We have to admit the conclusion, distasteful to many historians of aesthetics but grudgingly admitted by most of them, that ancient writers and thinkers, though confronted with excellent works of art and quite susceptible to their charm, were neither able nor eager to detach the aesthetic quality of these works of art from their intellectual, moral, religious and practical function or content, or to use such an aesthetic quality as a standard for grouping the fine arts together or for making them the subject of a comprehensive philosophical interpretation.’ Kristeller, Paul. "The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics (I)." Essays on the History of Aesthetics. ed. Peter Kivy. (Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 1992). p.3-34.
10 Dutton, Denis. "But they don't have our concept of art." p.233-238. Dutton has since produced a revised version of his listing of cross-cultural features or practices, which he renames ‘recognition criteria’ for works of art. See Dutton, Denis. "A Naturalist Definition of Art." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 64.3 (2006). p.367-377. The list is, however, very similar to the one discussed here and is open to the same kinds of objections. (Dutton revised his list again in his book The Art Instinct (OUP, 2009). I have discussed the weaknesses in his position in my recent book Art and Time.)
11 Cf. the comment by the anthropologist, Jacques Macquet: ‘When taking office, a Bamileke chief … had his statue carved. After his death, the statue was respected but it was slowly eroded by the weather as his memory was eroded in the minds of his people.’ Macquet, Jacques. Introduction to Aesthetic Anthropology. (Malibu: Undena Publications, 1979). p.38. Lack of interest in preserving such artifacts was by no means uncommon in tribal cultures.
"The Irreducible Historicality of the Concept of Art." British
Journal of Aesthetics, 42.4
(2002). p.367-379. Emphasis added. This
is Levinson’s abbreviated statement of his definition.
series of earlier essays, the first published in 1979.
the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition eds.
Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen. (
14 Detels, Claire. "History and the Philosophies of Arts." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 51.3 (1993). p.363-375. Detels adds interestingly: ‘According to the myth recorded by Franconian scribes in their manuscript illustrations, for instance, the “composer” of Gregorian chant is God, who dictated the sacred liturgical language through a dove into the ear of Pope Gregory the Great.’
Malraux has developed
a theory of art that
places these and
related questions at the centre of his thinking, producing a
perspective on the
world of art very different from that offered by analytic or
aesthetics. See, for example: Derek Allan, Art and the Human Adventure,
Malraux's Theory of Art (
Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009);
Derek Allan, An intellectual revolution: André
Malraux and the temporal nature of art. Journal
Works from the past, and from other cultures, figure prominently in the world of art as we know it today. Yet historical and anthropological evidence tells us that in many cultures the concept of art was unknown, and that the artifacts from those cultures we today regard as art were originally viewed in quite different terms. The paper examines certain arguments in contemporary aesthetics which seek to minimise the importance of historical and anthropological evidence of this kind. Weaknesses are identified in each of the arguments, and the paper suggests that contemporary aesthetics needs to take the evidence from history and anthropology more seriously.
this paper was presented at a
meeting of the American Society of Aesthetics (Eastern Division) in
... the disciplines
aesthetics and art history ... ‘pass each other like ships in the
... our modern world of art is very much more than the world of modern art.
Romanesque art: Flight into Egypt - Autun
Spirit figures - Vanuatu (Louvre)
‘... a major part of our art heritage has been bequeathed to us by men and women for whom the idea of art was not the same as our own, or by those for whom the idea did not even exist.’ Andre Malraux, The Voices of Silence.
When we today use the concept ‘art’ ... we are, apparently, thinking in terms that would simply have made no sense to people in many cultures of the past – cultures from which, nevertheless, many of the objects we now call art have come.
Any discipline that, as a matter of principle, chooses to ignore findings or currents of thought in other disciplines is heading towards fossilisation ...
Boucher, Girl Resting
... we can readily think of features and practices commonly associated with Western art today that were non-existent in the cultures in which many objects now regarded as art originated.
... a right to pick and choose – not on the basis of the reliability of the evidence ... but on the basis of a pre-determined theoretical position which the evidence is not permitted to call into question.
Dying lioness, Assyrian, palace of Ashurbanipal, Nimrud, ca. 645-640 BC
world of art today encompasses objects from the whole sweep of the
stretching back to the remotest times and taking in a wealth of
cultures. If we ignore this fact we
ignoring the reality of what art means in the
century – and what it has meant for several decades now.
Mask, Baining people. Pacific islands. Musée du quai Branly, Paris
analysis offered here suggests
that to the extent history is
considered at all, its significance is minimised and marginalised.
The consequences of this approach will almost
certainly be that aesthetics and art history will
continue to ‘pass each other like ships in the night’.
posed by so many of the objects from the past we encounter in our art museums will continue to be questions about
contemporary aesthetics has nothing significant to say.