The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Arnold Berleant

Aesthetics and the Contemporary Arts [1]

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 29 (2)

Winter 1970, 155-168.



I - The Philosophy of Art

II – The Role of Theory

III – Emancipation of Aesthetic Perception

IV – Art & the Industrial Revolution

V – Art & Social Change

VI – Aesthetics & the Changing Nature of the Arts


HHC: Titling and Index added

I - The Philosophy of Art                                                                 

PHILOSOPHERS have long been fascinated by the strange power of the arts.  Some, like Plato, had an uneasy suspicion of their elusive force and were concerned over the threat the arts seem to present to the rational stability of the social order.  When such men came to account for the arts, then, it took the form of prescription and control.  Others, like Tolstoy, attempted to harness the power of the arts to aid in expressing a religious vision and in achieving a lofty social ideal.  Still others, impressed by the unpredictable yet fruitful creativity of the arts, have sought to allow them to flourish freely and to make their unique contribution to society in their own way.  Yet control, cultivation, and encouragement constitute but several of the many philosophical reactions to the activity of art.

Despite such attention, however, the philosophy of art has lagged far behind philosophical thought in most other areas.  It did not achieve an identity of its own until the mid-eighteenth century when Baumgarten published his Aesthetica (1750).  Yet even after this, philosophical thought about art remained encumbered by prior commitments to doctrines and systems that had been developed with little regard to the practice of the arts.  Perhaps it was felt that in dealing with one of the fruits of civilization, the theory of art could be expected to derive its full sustenance from the roots of philosophic thought.

This has not always been the case, however. Aristotle stands as one highly significant exception, basing the largest part of his Poetics on the empirical study of Greek tragedy.  A recent instance is the case of critics and philosophers like Roger Fry and Ortega y Gasset, who felt called upon to explain and defend the new face of the arts early in the twentieth century.  But in the philosophical literature these remain the exception rather than the rule.  In fact, a strong impulse in recent aesthetics has been the influence generated by the interest in conceptual analysis.  Here the limited area of discourse is staked out with attention confined to the meaning and significance of aesthetic concepts rather than to the materials and practices of the arts.  This has led to self-defeating consequences for many since, as Morris Weitz claims to have shown, aesthetic theory is foredoomed to fail inasmuch as it is logically impossible to define the concept art. [2]

In contrast with such pessimistic allegations, let us consider what may be a more promising alternative by taking an empirical tack rather than a conceptual one.  After some brief reflections on the function of aesthetic theory, we shall develop two constructive responses to the challenge thrust upon aesthetics by new forms and movements in the contemporary arts.  The first of these responses arises out of the need to recognize the consequences of recent artistic practice for concepts in traditional aesthetics.  The second is the need to develop fresh concepts in aesthetics.  These new notions

[1] Arnold Berleant is professor of philosophy at C. W. Post College, Long Island University.  His article “The Sensuous and the Sensual in Aesthetics” appeared in the 1964 Winter issue of JAAC.


must not only do a better job of accounting for new art; they must also explain the data of past art more effectively than traditional principles that originated not from an examination of art but as the consequences of philosophic theories and assumptions that originated independently of art.


II - The Role of Theory

What, to begin, is the point of aesthetic theory?  What is its function in relation to the artistic activities in which people engage and the artistic products that they fashion?  These questions can perhaps best be answered by turning first to the way in which theories are used in areas other than art.  Once the typical function of theory becomes clearer, we can then inquire into its proper use in connection with the arts.

In general, it is the task of any theory to account for phenomena, and by accounting for them, to make experience more understandable and consequently easier to achieve and control.  Whether the phenomena are falling objects, planetary motions, the bending of light in interstellar space; whether they are fossil remains, homologous forms among organisms, data about the distribution and modification of biological species, the theories offered to account for such phenomena are developed in creative interplay between the puzzlement that such data evoke and the need to comprehend, and at times to function with and achieve control over, these phenomena.  Theorizing is not primarily an attempt to define concepts unambiguously and to construct coherent systems.  Rather it is an effort to identify, relate, and explain phenomena, an effort which proves itself by its success in assimilating new data and by its fruitful application.  By first turning to those experiences that both attract and puzzle us, theory defines the limits of discussion by the relevance the phenomena have to our initial confusion.  Thus the theorist develops concepts such as mass, force, motion, energy, organism, species, environment; he discerns relationships, such as causality, natural selection; and he elaborates the categories and structures that are most effective in dealing with the issues with which he is coping, the data be is capable of acquiring, and the success with which he can account for and control experience.  Thus it is to experience that we first must turn (and with which we finally must end), and it is experience which dictates the appropriate theoretical structures, meanings, and operations.

Aesthetic theory, in particular, has the task of accounting for aesthetic phenomena.  Its purpose is to render the experiences of art and the aesthetic perception of nature more understandable.  This it can do satisfactorily only by constructing conceptual tools which derive directly from the arts and from aesthetic experience, and which return to clarify and enhance our future experience by helping us to recognize, order, and respond to it in ways that are appropriate to the phenomena.

This might appear to be a task that could be undertaken in a straightforward fashion.  Yet, as philosophers are fond of observing, appearances are often deceptive, and in this case no less so theoretically than perceptually.  Aesthetic theory has not been a particularly fruitful region of philosophical inquiry, in part because of its subjection to philosophical commitments unrelated to artistic practices, and in part because of the complexity of these data themselves.  When we turn to the practices and experiences of the arts, the fascination that we feel at first often turns into bafflement, for the arts confront us with a disconcerting array of materials and perceptual activities.  And when we look at the contemporary arts, this variety seems to take on the character of a mélange.  Aesthetics seems at a loss to account in any coherent, systematic way for the use of sharply new materials, such as plastic, acrylics, electronically produced sounds; for novels and plays without plots, and for the deliberate elimination of other devices of order from various arts.  Even the distinctions among the arts have broken down, and we are often unable to decide where a new development belongs - whether, for example, environments are sculpture or architecture; assemblages, paintings or sculptures; happenings, theater, painting (as the outgrowth of action painting), or an entirely new art form synthesizing elements of theater, sculpture,


dance, painting, and music.  And within the arts, too, basic distinctions fail to hold, for we are no longer able to draw the line between design, decoration, illustration, and fine art, and between musical sound and noise.

With this plethora of data, how can aesthetic theory respond?  Whatever answer it makes, one thing is certain: it cannot legislate these data away.  The philosophy of art, if it is to fulfill its function as theory, must account for these developments, not discount them.  Yet how are we to proceed?  Perhaps we can discover a clue in the very source of our aesthetic confusion, the contemporary arts themselves.  What are these arts trying to achieve?  To what are they appealing?  How do they confront us?  What perceptual demands do they impose upon us?


III – Emancipation of Aesthetic Perception

A number of influences in the history of modern aesthetics have, until fairly recently, moved art steadily away from any close association with the objects, experiences, and appearances of the world of things and events that surrounds us.  The romantic nineteenth century expressed in many different ways a concern with individual sensibility: a proclamation of artistic independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency, especially in music, in painting, and in poetry.  With the introduction into painting of abstraction approaching that of music, which spilled over into sculpture, dance, and some of the other arts, and found its theoretical expression in the doctrine known as formalism, that which is recognizable, realistic, suggestive of life became by principle unessential and, indeed, distracting.

A survey of recent thought about art might then seem to make secure the view that art has gradually and steadily emancipated itself from features that can be seen as catering to the uncultivated observer.  The need for special training, often long and technical, may seem unavoidable if one is to appreciate the intricacies of some of the more esoteric movements in the arts of our day.  Here one thinks perhaps of abstract expressionism in painting, serial and electronic music, and the like.

Yet it may be possible to view developments such as these as somewhat more distant expressions of a quite different tendency, a constant dynamic in the direction of a remarkably intimate association of the artistic experience with the forces and interests of the world outside of art.  There is a thread which runs through the history of the arts since its earliest origins which must be taken with the utmost seriousness.  This is the connection that objects and experiences of art have with the range of human activity outside the artistic, with the forms and qualities of the cultural environment.  It is possible that pursuing this strand we may achieve an illuminating way of viewing the confusion and conflict that seem to prevail over the meaning and significance of the contemporary arts for the history of the arts and for aesthetic theory.  For against the movement in recent times of what might seem to be an ever greater autonomy and narrowing of the arts, a trend has developed during the past several decades toward extending the range of what we have been willing to accept as art.  This has happened too rapidly, perhaps, for us to have been able yet to re-establish clear lines and limits for comprehending our relationships to art.

With this extension of our aesthetic embrace has come the need to reappraise our relations to those objects we have come to call art and our ideas about these relationships.  For cherished doctrines have come into question, and the validity of guiding principles has encountered serious challenges.  A challenge has been laid down in particular to that set of related ideas that codify the distinctness of art from life, ideas like the disinterested attitude for regarding art, the removal of art from practical uses, and the deliberate deletion of all non-artistic associations from artistic products.

It has been observed [3] that the point in history at which the aesthetic attitude began to be characterized as disinterested, that is the eighteenth century in England, coincided with the point in history when modern aesthetics first emerged.  While this is certainly a suggestive correspondence, it


is worth asking further whether the identification of an aesthetic attitude might not signify the point at which men first began to recognize aesthetic experience as a distinct mode of experience and attempted to locate that feature which makes it distinctive.  Yet assigning an identity to such a mode of experience does not entail making it ontologically distinct, nor does it necessarily commit us to a particular formulation of how it is expressed.  Rather, awareness of an aesthetic mode of experience emerges historically as one event in the development of human perception and awareness.  And it was in the eighteenth century that aesthetic perception finally emancipated itself from a long tradition of subservience to ritualistic, utilitarian, and other non-aesthetic modes of experience. [4]

It is possible, in fact, to trace a gradual refinement and a clearer identity of aesthetics from that time forward, culminating in the early decades of the twentieth century with the development of the aesthetic of formalism.  Here the relevant features in the object are only the formal qualities which emerge out of the materials and techniques of the particular art involved, and the experience of art consists in an emotion peculiar to apprehending these formal qualities.  Once aesthetics and the objects and experiences it elucidates achieved an identity of their own, it might appear that the question of the connections of art with other human activities and interests had been answered in favor of aesthetic isolation.

Important as this development was, it carried the additional implication that the perceptual distinctness of aesthetic experience meant the ontological discreteness of aesthetic perception and a corresponding removal of the objects of such perception from the other objects and activities which surround us.  This belief finds concrete expression in what one might call the “museum mentality,” the compulsion to isolate the objects of art physically in order to encourage us to isolate them perceptually.

This parallel between isolating the object and disengaging our perception of it from practical associations may in fact be an excessive reaction to the earlier subservience of the arts, in our search for aesthetic identity and our discovery of the aesthetic mode of experience.  It may well be that the presence of an aesthetic dimension in primitive artifacts and in religious ritual does not signify merely a stage in the development toward an art unencumbered by extraneous uses and associations.  Rather it may stand as an early phase of something that has always been present in the arts in one form or another - the expression of the major role that the arts play in the full range of human experience and of their function as integrative forces in that experience.  Rather than assuming a strange and wonderful uniqueness, the object of art is a product of what has always been a dimension of human life, although often obscured and unaware.  That dimension is a vital and vibrant sensitivity to what is direct and qualitative in experience, a role art shares in its own way with serious human relationships and with objects of nature.

Thus for aesthetics and its objects to have an identity does not entitle one to conclude that art is ontologically discrete, set apart by its very nature from the rest of human experience.  Distinctive though art is, it possesses an identity only within an underlying continuity of experience.  It is here, in fact, that an examination of contemporary arts suggests an idea that is not limited to them alone.  The idea is simply this: The traditional separation of art from the other activities and interests of men is incapable of providing a convincing account of the experience of contemporary arts.  Indeed, such common descriptions of the aesthetic attitude as being contemplative, disinterested, employing psychical distance, isolating the object, all such accounts distort the experience of the traditional arts as well as obscure their human significance.  Stated positively, contemporary arts bring home to us the functional relation that holds between all the participants in the experience of art - the creative artist, the audience, the art object, and the performer - and they reaffirm the connections between this experience and the experiences and concerns of men outside the world of art.  Let me suggest how this has come about.

The historian of the arts is often im-


pressed with the ways in which the arts draw upon changes in the conditions and quality of human life, and how they mirror these changes in the perceptual forms peculiar to the arts.  Careful but suggestive studies have revealed important relationships between, for example, Greek sculpture of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Gothic architecture, Renaissance painting, and characteristic qualities of experience that marked Hellenic humanism, medieval spiritual aspiration, and the re-birth of secularism, naturalism, and humanism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The same can be done with many of the contemporary arts.  Yet here the discontinuity with the past history of the arts is rather more acute.  Of the many changes in cultural experience, two seem to have had special significance for the arts.  The first is the rise of industrial production, which has transformed the characteristic features that objects possess, and has led to the use of new materials, objects, and techniques in artistic practice.  Second, there are the fundamental social changes that have come about through increasing democratization, in particular the emergence of population masses and a corresponding mass culture, generating new perceptual activities and reaffirming a social function for the arts.  Together, new artistic materials and objects and new perceptual activities have been embodied in some strikingly different forms and movements in the arts themselves, and it is these that present the challenge to aesthetics.  In their negative consequences the contemporary arts insist on the rejection of aesthetic isolation; in their positive consequences they offer the opportunity for a renewal of aesthetic relevance and for the reintegration of the arts into the mainstream of contemporary culture.

Let us explore this functional exchange of the activities of art with the fuller context of human experience by examining two significant influences.  I shall begin by noting some ways in which new materials, objects, and techniques that arise out of the technology of industrial production have entered into the art world and have profoundly influenced the vocabulary and practice of artists.  Second, I shall attempt to discover how certain fundamental social changes in the modern world have come to shape our perceptual activities in the arts into new and different forms.  Finally, I shall try to assess the implications these developments carry for aesthetic theory that tries, as theory should, to account for these changes.


IV – Art & the Industrial Revolution

It would be strange indeed to suppose that so sensitive a cultural barometer as the arts would alone of all the dimensions of modern civilization be unaffected by the industrial transformation of modern society.  What is in fact most surprising is how powerful traditional ways of making and enjoying art have been able to persist so long without serious change.  But now that such changes are upon us, we find it as difficult to explain them in traditional terms as to account for the power of a nuclear generator by the principle of the lever.  Industrialism has transfigured the object of art just as it has transformed the other articles of human invention.  Yet in what ways?

One can with little difficulty single out features that are typical of art objects of the past, features that arise in large measure from the fact that these articles were produced by skilled craftsmen using relatively simple hand tools. [5]   Such objects combined workmanship that was intricate, a design unique to the object, and rarity and expensiveness that were the result of the large quantity of labor required to produce a small output.  Because of their manner of production, traditional art objects possessed signs of human workmanship and fallibility, displaying considerable irregularity, and providing maximum opportunity for unstudied, intuitive decisions in the process of fashioning them.  And since these art objects performed a variety of functions, such as contributing to religious worship or recording people and events, artists were forced to accept severe limitations on their choice of subject matter, in their ability to abstract, and on the sorts of audience responses they could evoke.  Yet at the same time the celebratory character of the fine arts, associated as they were with ritual and


with various forms of social privilege, encouraged the development of a sharp distinction between the practical activities of men, which demanded an unqualified commitment to utility, and the artistic activities of aesthetic enjoyment, which were cut off from practical affairs and regarded for their own intrinsic worth.  Along with such regard went a sharply defined difference between the objects of utility and objects of beauty.  Art objects, then, were treated with special care.  They were treasured, honored for their age and for the status they conferred on their patron or owner, and safeguarded as possessing value that was inherent and permanent.  Moreover, these were not only descriptive features of past art; they carried in addition a powerful normative connotation.  It was just such traits that art was expected to possess.

Industrialism has changed all this.  It has generated an entire set of new features in the things that surround us, and these traits have been reflected in the objects that are emerging out of the contemporary arts.  In place of unique objects which possess an intricate structure produced in small numbers and at great cost, we now have uniform articles manufactured in enormous quantities having simplicity of design and economy of price.  The irregularity, and fallibility, the intuitive manner by which they were formerly fashioned are giving way to a flawless precision governed by careful calculation.  And in place of objects treasured for their age and permanence, we value instead the newness of things that are expendable in the light of changes and improvements.

Like the traits of traditionally produced art, these new features have also assumed the character of aesthetic standards, and have given birth to new materials, objects, and techniques of artistic production.  The emancipation of the arts from subservience to historical accuracy and religious devotion has encouraged their propensity to abstraction, while at the same time their integration into the traffic of daily life has replaced the isolated object of art with one integrated through its function into the course of ordinary human activity.  Artists are making free use of materials from the new technology, like plastic, acrylics, machine parts, electronic sounds, and foam rubber.  They are taking up everyday articles and situations, like newspapers, kitchen utensils, factory work and assembly lines, and theater marquees.  They are utilizing impermanent materials, like tree leaves, paper, light, balloons, and elements of mass culture produced by or taken from this new technology, such as comic strips and street noises.  They are drilling and welding, dripping and splashing, transfiguring recorded sounds, splicing tapes, and composing by computer.

Yet behind the use of the materials, objects, and techniques of an industrial culture lies the inspiration of the science and technology that have produced it.  This is hardly recent, and we sometimes overlook how responsive many of the arts have long been to the material transformation of the modern world.  We forget how Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, and Henri-Edmond Cross, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, developed pointillisme as a method of producing paintings which drew upon the mechanical techniques of technology, the analytic method of scientific inquiry, and the principles of optics.  We fail to recall how Zola regarded the novel as the model of a scientific experiment and transformed the novelist into an observer and an experimentalist, and how the naturalistic novel at the same time responded to the ideas of evolutionary biology and revealed the conditions of an emerging industrial society.

Science and technology have continued to exercise a profound influence on theories of artistic production and on their results.  Léger and the cubists went from the geometry of the machine to the geometrization of nature.  Gropius and the Bauhaus discovered in the machine the modern medium and principles of design.  More recently, painters have applied scientific concepts and terminology to their work, as with optical artists associated with the Nouvelle Tendance, who create uniform patterns of many small geometric units that they call “periodic structures,” and speak of elements of their works as “information” and of their


compositional arrangement as “programming.”  Composers, too, have responded in similar ways when they term the musical score “time-space,” and use graphs, statistical charts, symbolic codings, and laws and formulas from mathematics and the physical sciences.  Technological tools like the computer and the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer have been used, and recording, especially on magnetic tape, has rendered the performer assistance and, at times, has made him obsolete.

Recording techniques, in fact, have transformed the musical object by the variety of ways in which it can be manipulated, such as through the balance of microphones, echo chambers, and multi-track recordings.  It can even be said that recording has turned music into a group product, the results of collaboration between the composer, the performer, and the engineer.  As a result, the requirements of performance have so changed that recorded music has become a rather different art from live music.  Tempos, for example, are regularly taken faster in recordings to help eliminate dead spots.  Whereas in a live performance one can observe the player preparing during a pause for what will follow, the visual spectacle obviously does not exist in a recording and this pause must be “filled in” by pushing ahead to the next notes.  Moreover the technical excellence of recorded performances results from and conveys a mechanical achievement.  The music does not live and grow as a freshly recreative act; it is instead run off like the product of a machine that it is.

Mechanical precision and standardization have also come in for acceptance from other directions, as when minimal, optical, and some pop artists use repeated patterns and mathematical exactness of line and arrangement.  Even when objects of contemporary art appear to deny some of these features, such as may occur with Happenings and Pop art, they are still most understandable as commentaries on and reactions to industrialism in the arts and the mass commercial culture that has accompanied it, rather than as spontaneous developments with no direct origin. [6]  The Industrial Revolution has finally reached the arts.

While it is true that the mechanization of the arts diminishes the personal creative element, this is not a sign of the intrinsic failure of technology.  It may rather suggest new forms and directions to creative imagination.  Recording techniques, for instance, may lead to new types of musical composition, as indeed they have already begun to do, utilizing the opportunities that recording and sound equipment offer.  There are parallels here in other contemporary arts.  Traditional techniques of sculpture, for example, employ a craft technology in which the individual sculptor designs and executes his own marble from the crude unshaped block of stone.  As bronze became a desirable material, the sculptor began to produce wax or clay models from which molds were made and bronze cast by artisan casters.  The point has now been reached at which sculptors not only have others cast bronzes from their models but have them make sheet metal sculptures from small paper cut-outs (as Picasso has done), build large constructions from designs and sketches (as in the case of David Smith), and utilize, sometimes simply by selecting and mounting, the prefabricated products, new and discarded, of an industrial technology (as in the work of the dadaists, constructivists, and junk sculptors).

Yet probably the most striking and suggestive parallel is in the transformation given the dramatic arts by the advent of photography and the motion picture.  While a traditional performing art has continued to function, albeit more weakly and with less influence and smaller audiences, a new technology has created a new art in which the actual movement and discourse of people has been replaced by images fixed on a celluloid strip and shown in rapid succession so as to create the illusion of movement.  The old rapport between actors and audience is replaced by a film audience which enters a new world, loses touch with itself, and by superb mechanical contrivance is able to dispense with the conventional illusions so necessary to the proper appreciation of traditional theater.  It might


indeed be said in the case of the film that technology has helped us achieve a fuller humanity.


V – Art & Social Change

This transformation of the materials and objects of art through the pervasive influence of industrialism has been paralleled by new perceptual activities that are the result of fundamental social changes.  Here the relationship is still somewhat obscure, although the different manner of response is an established fact.  Aristocratic art has had to respond to increasing democratization; no longer is art fit only for kings.  Demographic isolation has given way to enormous population masses, and local and regional cultures have retreated before the onslaught of mass culture that has radically altered the size and type of audiences, and the communication, production, distribution, and consumption of art.  Out of these changes a new mode of perceiving art has emerged.

There is vastly greater inclusiveness in experiencing art, both in the type and range of perceptual qualities and in the objects admitted to aesthetic perception.  We are asked to perceive the interaction of color areas arranged in stripes or panels, with virtually no other pictorial quality present in a visually important way.  We are asked to discriminate among the subtle gradations of value in monochromatic canvases.  The frequency range of the sounds we encounter has been greatly expanded through the use of electronic instruments.  We are blinded by lights, startled by mirrors, inflamed by dance, transported in fascinated absorption by film.  We walk through sculptures, readjust our sense of spatial order in environments and in daring architectural structures, sit alongside the actors in a theatrical or dance performance.  We are made to view the sacrilegious, the obscene, the mundane, the commercial; to hear the sound of traffic, of water dripping from a leaky faucet; to vibrate bodily from the impact of intense volumes or cringe before the physical force of high frequencies.

Not only have the contemporary arts vastly extended the range of the traditional aesthetic senses and objects; they are drawing upon sensory capacities never before allowed (or at least recognized).  Certainly the appeal to the tactile and kinesthetic senses represents a major shift in expanding the limits of aesthetic perception.  Along with the enlargement of our sensory responsiveness has come the breakdown of aesthetic prohibitions, and none is more significant than that against the sensual. [7]  It is easier, however, to be a visual spiritualist than a tactile one, and with the inclusion of the contact senses, the presence of the erotic has been admitted and intensified in large regions of aesthetic experience, such as dance, sculpture, and the novel.

This enlargement of aesthetic sensibility has produced, I think, at least two major shifts in the perceptual experience of the contemporary arts.  First, there is the deliberate elimination of perceptual discrimination between the principal participants in aesthetic experience.  The art object has imposed itself inescapably upon the audience through the use of many new devices.  These include electronically amplified music of deafening volume (as in Robert Joffrey’s ballet Astarte), the blinding flash of spotlights on the audience, the entrance of actors and dancers through the audience, indeed at times from the audience, environments into which one enters or through which one passes, sculptures and assemblages containing mirrors or polished, reflecting surfaces which incorporate the viewer into the work both as image and as participant through the very act of perceiving it, direct addresses to the theater audience instead of mere asides, and optical art which twists the eyes into painfully futile conformity.  In the case of plotless films, the visual movement alone does not give shape to the passage of time.  A dramatic element is necessary, and it is only through the participation of the viewer that this dramatic factor is introduced.  In a similar way the creative artist and the object have been integrated, as in action painting; the creator and the perceiver have joined, as in some forms of modern and folk dance; and the performer has been assimilated with all the others, as in Happenings.

A second shift in perceptual experience


consists in the deliberate integration of features from ordinary life into art.  The relationship between life and art has always powered the novel, [8] but it has become a main theme in a good deal of contemporary art.  One of the most striking ways in which art is made to reflect these features is through the use of chance elements.  Aleatoric music, action painting, literary works (such as by Mallarmé), which require the reader to choose from among alternative endings, all incorporate this trait of ordinary experience in an artistic format.

Another way in which art and life are integrated lies in using the materials of everyday life, such as prosaic events and commonplace objects.  Here many instances come to mind.  There is the music of John Cage, who is responsive to sounds of all sorts and considers any kind of noise as musical material.  There are Happenings, which not only synthesize all the elements of the aesthetic field into a creative activity but deliberately draw their themes and materials from the ongoing course of ordinary life and from industrial objects and activities.  Cage, himself an influence on the development of Happenings, has observed that “one could view everyday life itself as theater.”  Here the audience is a part of the work - the spectators are drawn into the action and, in one way or another, are forced to respond to a new environment, to a strange adventure, to a parody of customary things and events.  The Happening may be reaching its fullest extension in Regis Debray, who regards a revolution as a coordinated series of guerilla Happenings.  Some of his admirers, in fact, take part in Happenings, feeling that they are training for future happenings when they will use guns and grenades.  One thinks here of Wilde’s dictum that Life imitates Art.  There are objets trouvées used in collages and sculpture which intentionally draw in associations from prosaic sources of the most unlikely sorts, leading to parody, satire, or direct criticism of social traits, as well as to an enhanced awareness of one’s daily environment.  There is the contemporary dance of Merce Cunningham and others, who choreograph their work using the materials of ordinary activities and commonplace gestures, as in Cunningham’s “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run,” which, incidentally, employs music written by Cage.  This interplay with the conditions of daily experience has long been engaged in by the film, and nowhere with such intensity as in much of the contemporary cinema, with its intimacy of ordinary detail.  The film, in portraying real surfaces with free movement in time and space, is an artistic medium that approaches the directness and randomness of life.  Pop art, too, has seized on the intimate relation between art and life. [9]   Robert Rauschenberg denies, for example, any division between Sacred Art and Profane Life, and insists on working “in the gap between the two.”  Indeed, as he once remarked, “There is no reason not to consider the world one gigantic painting.”  Theater, too, has joined the other arts here.  Everything is a fitting subject, and in the most candid, graphic terms, from liberalism and race relations to homosexuality, deformity, marital problems, and the sex act.  The distancing logic of a plot has receded and in its place appear phenomenologically the ordinary details of life which we never trouble to notice, as the series of movements by which a man sits in a chair, a woman handles a cup or moves her lips.  Pinter is a master of this.  Dramatic shape is replaced by the mystery of the mundane, and instead of resting on a structure that the playwright has provided, we must move on the crest of our own attention. [10]

All this illustrates what has become a motif in a good deal of twentieth-century art - a deliberate dethroning of art and its re-integration into the course of normal human activity, giving the contemporary arts both a humanistic and a diabolical aspect.  The childlike, the primitive, the fantastic and dreamlike, the utterly simple have appeared in painting, sculpture, and film, accompanied by their obverse, the grotesque, the brutal, the perverted.  Gone is the ideal of beauty and in its place appears the mundane and subterranean.  Music, dance, and the plastic arts have joined the other arts in a kind of theater of life in which we are told nothing and presented everything.

There is another way in which art has


become integrated with the lived environment, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the two arts which perhaps more than any others embody the artistic vitality of the present, architecture and the film.  Renoir once commented that “Painting, like carpentry or iron work, is a craft and as such, subject to the same rules.”  That the arts are technology, involving, with etymological literalness, a joining, fitting together, is something that artists have always known.  But it is in modern architecture and the film, offspring of our industrial technology, that this integration has asserted itself most impressively.  Both architecture and film embody an aesthetics of function, the one an explicit concourse for human activity, [11] the other an absorbing reflection and commentary on it.  The steel and glass skyscraper is a mechanical building, a “machine pure and simple,” as Frank Lloyd Wright called it, and has a reflexive force as both the embodiment of industrial activity and a monument to industrial power.  Gropius compares the low-ceilinged air-conditioned cells of the modern skyscraper with the low-ceilinged humid cells that form the remainder of the Gothic cathedral.  As the latter reminded man of his humble position before God, so the former reminds him of his humble condition before the dollar.  By stressing the continuity between the technological aspect of artistic production and the functional aspect of the social uses of the arts, the arts have again reaffirmed their affiliation with the basic activities of human life.  Thus in a multitude of ways the aristocratic diffidence of the traditional arts has given way to democratic acceptance and involvement.


VI – Aesthetics & The Changing Nature of the Arts

We come, finally, to the significance for aesthetics of these developments that have transformed the arts.  As I noted at the outset, we cannot ignore these data, however confusing or distressing they prove to be for our artistic comfort and our aesthetic tranquility.  Nor can we legislate them away by appealing to traditional concepts and principles.  At the same time, by setting ourselves to account for them we need make no prior commitment to their value.  Great achievements in the arts appear in the same modes as lesser ones, and it is our task at this juncture to explain rather than to judge.

Once we acknowledge this, we must further recognize that a new aesthetics must be developed, one which by its greater breadth and generality can account for the contemporary arts while at the same time absorb the traditional ones as limited cases.  It is perhaps too soon to set forth a theory of the contemporary arts now.  Yet it is possible, nonetheless, to suggest the outlines within which an aesthetics of the contemporary arts will probably take shape.

We meet, on the one hand, the demand to cast off the shackles of traditional restraints, and this takes the form of a series of denials.  There is the denial of the importance of unity and harmony, at least as these are restricted in their application to the art object.  Such aesthetic standards (of formal beauty, really) contribute to the independence, indeed to the isolation, of the art object.  The relevance of these standards must now be to the entire aesthetic situation and to how the object functions in that situation, rather than to the art object alone. [12]  Then there is the rejection of the ideal as the end of art.  Gone is the standard of beauty, and in its place are standards of considerably greater breadth and inclusiveness.  There is also the denial of distance and of the contemplative attitude which thrives under conditions of aesthetic aloofness.  And perhaps most significant, there is the denial of disinterestedness and of the consequences this notion has had in quarantining the art object from creative interplay with the ongoing concerns of human living.  Along with this, too, has come a re­ection of the notion that art is unique, and a scoffing at the “museum mentality,” and those institutional arrangements and attitudes designed to safeguard that uniqueness.

Yet coupled with these denials of traditional restrictions have appeared some powerful affirmations.  One of these, as we have seen, centers on the continuity between art


and life.  An aesthetics of function has emerged which draws sustenance from this connection, and which extends the domain of artistic accomplishment with Greenough to the sailing ship and with Marmnetti to the speeding automobile and beyond them to the skyscraper and the modern city.  Along with functionalism has come the temporalizing of all the arts, seeing art as process rather than as stasis, so that even the so-called spatial arts have either adopted movement, as in the case of kinetic sculpture; have taken on the semblance of movement, as in op art; or in one fashion or another have insinuated themselves into the ongoing course of experience.

This activity of the art object contributes to the second positive feature of the new aesthetics, the perceptual integration of all the elements in the aesthetic situation into the procession of a unified experience.  Not only have the distinctions between the creator of art, the aesthetic perceiver, the art object, and the performer been obscured; their functions have tended to overlap and merge as well, becoming continuous in the course of aesthetic experience.

These observations suggest the need for new concepts, for a theoretical vision which is able to encompass the broader extension of the arts, their fuller integration into the other activities of men, and their greater generality and inclusiveness  Such a concept may perhaps be found in the notion of the aesthetic field, which delineates the functional relationship that holds among the participants in aesthetic events and which identifies the basic referent in aesthetic discussions as a general field of experience instead of the more restrictive object, perceiver, or artist.  But this is really a subject for another paper, and this one contains enough that is controversial for one occasion.


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[1] Earlier, shorter versions of this paper were read at meetings of the Long Island Philosophical Society on Dec. 16, 1967 and the American Society for Aesthetics on Oct. 24, 1968.

[2] M. Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” JAAC, 15 (Sept. 1956): 27-35.  This has been widely reprinted, most recently in Problems in Criticism of the Arts, ed. H. G. Dufileld (San Francisco, 1968), together with several critical replies, including one by the present author.

[3] Jerome Stolnitz, “On the Origins of ‘Aesthetic Disinterestedness,’” JAAC, 20 (Winter 1961): 131-44.

[4] “Up to the time of Kant, a philosophy of beauty always meant an attempt to reduce our aesthetic experience to an alien principle and to subject art to an alien jurisdiction.  Kant in his Critique of Judgment was the first to give a clear and convincing proof of the autonomy of art.”  Ernst Cassirer, Essay on Man (Garden City, N.Y., 1956), p. 176.

[5] This discussion derives in part from the highly suggestive observations of Lewis Mumford. Cf. Technics and Civilization (New York, 1934), parts of which have been reprinted in M. Rader, ed., A Modern Book of Aesthetics, 3rd ed. (New York, 1960), pp. 354-64.

[6] Cf. J. P. Hodin, “The Aesthetics of Modem Art,” JAAC, 26 (Winter 1967): 184-85.

[7] Cf. my “The Sensuous and the Sensual in Aesthetics,” JAAC, 23 (Winter 1964): 185-92.

[8] George Lukacs, for example, distinguishes between ecstasy, which involves a radical break with everyday life, and aesthetic catharsis, in which there is a ‘streaming back and forth.”  Cf. V. Maslow, “Lukacs’ Man-Centered Aesthetics,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 27 (June 1967): 545-46, and notes.

[9] John Cage has noted that pop art takes its style and subject matter from the world of commerce and advertising, a setting devoted to making one go out and buy, and disengages such material from this context.  Still, the practical claim persists, and it is from this that pop art derives its satirical relevance.  Cf. “An Interview with John Cage,” Tulane Drama Review, 10 (Winter 1965): 66.  “More,” Cage has observed, “the obligation - the morality, if you wish - of all the arts today is to intensify, alter perceptual awareness and, hence, consciousness.  Awareness and consciousness of what?  Of the real material world.  Of the things we see and hear and taste and touch.”  “We Don’t Any Longer Know Who I Was,” an interview with Cage, New York Times, March 16, 1968, p. D9.

[10] Cf. Walter Kerr, ‘The Theater of Say It! Show It! What Is It!” New York Times Magazine, September 1, 1968, p. 10 f.

[11] A good discussion of this occurs in John Dewey’s Art as Experience (New York, 1934), pp. 290-92.

[12] Cf. Art as Experience and D. W. Gotshalk, Art and the Social Order (New York, 1962), among other books.  A systematic attempt to develop a contextualist aesthetic along the lines sketched out in part V of this paper appears in my Aesthetic Experience (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1970).