The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Arnold Berleant

The Persistence of Dogma in Aesthetics

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 52 (2)

Spring, 1994, 237-239

By the close of the eighteenth century, many features of Western intellectual history had become incorporated into a coherent body of aesthetic doctrine that soon acquired the standing of tradition.  “The three dogmas of aesthetics” is Allen Carlson’s fitting designation of the main principles by which I have characterized this theory: that “art consists primarily of objects,” that “these objects possess a special status,” and that “they must be regarded in a unique way.”  Held against the practice and experience of the arts, each of these, I claim, is assumptive and misleading. [1]

In a lucid and comprehensive critique, Carlson confronts my arguments against the persistent tradition of eighteenth-century aesthetics. [2]  He attempts to disempower the effort to recast aesthetics, charging, first, that my criticism of each of the dogmas fails, and second, that I never identify a “new” aesthetics but, in references to the aesthetic, actually make use of the very tradition I am disclaiming.  Moreover, he expresses relief at being spared the consequences that would have followed the success of my argument, fearing that otherwise nothing would remain especially aesthetic.

Some fundamental questions of aesthetics are at issue here, and while a brief reply to his charges cannot hope to settle our differences, perhaps it can press the discussion further by sharpening the points of dispute.  What I hope to show, put most concisely, is that both of Carlson’s objections commit the very error he visits on me; that is, they beg the question at issue.  For his support of the dogmas assumes the tradition whose truth is at issue, and his dismay at the possible loss of the aesthetic results from confining its meaning to that tradition.  Furthermore, his critique of my arguments for abandoning the dogmas is bound to his claim that I offer no alternative.  I do in


fact develop one, more indirectly and cumulatively in recent writings, more systematically in earlier ones. [3]  Let me explain.

On the most fundamental level, Carlson mistakes the nature of my argument by seeming to require an a priori, conclusive proof. [4]   What I provide, however, is an argument from art rather than an argument from concept or principle, that is, an inductive argument derived from creative and appreciative practices in a number of different arts - in particular in landscape painting, architecture and environment, music, literature, dance, and film - with special attention to recent developments in the arts.  Like all such arguments, its conclusions cannot claim certainty, but the evidence of what happens with the arts makes highly plausible an aesthetic distinguished by such features as aesthetic engagement, continuity among the factors in an aesthetic field or situation, and a pervasive perceptual intensity informed by associations of memory and by knowledge.  What impedes the acceptance of this aesthetic are the very dogmas Carlson so steadfastly defends.

This is clear from his objections to my critique.  The first dogma, that art consists primarily of objects, he argues, does not refer to objects as such but to “formal objects of appreciation” and these can include “processes, activities, gestures,” and other such events. [5]   By expanding the notion of “object” in this way, Carlson hopes to preserve the dogma from my criticism that centering art on objects distorts any account of the aesthetic situation or field, as I prefer to call it, by overlooking the other central factors that utterly qualify the art object.  Yet this ploy misses the point of the criticism, which opposes objectification, rather than objects as such.  One difficulty with the tradition lies precisely in taking the object as a formal construct, separable and isolable, with all the problems of ontology that follow from this.  A more accurate and less presumptive way of dealing with the art object lies in contextualizing objects of appreciation as the direction of our focus within an integral aesthetic field.

Carlson’s defense of the second dogma, that art objects possess a special status that is served by separating and isolating them, suffers from the same presumption.  It does not suffice to spurn my counter-examples as “exceptions that prove the rule,” since exceptions to a rule clearly undo its claim to universality.  Moreover, he dismisses such “exceptions” by invoking the very dogma in question; that is, these objects can themselves be seen as special.  Yet if Duchamp’s readymades are special, then anything can be special, and there is nothing that distinguishes art from everything else.  What is at issue is not whether aesthetic appreciation focuses perception and value; it is whether appreciation is served by separating art from the rich and complex course of experience or whether we can appreciate anything aesthetically, regardless of where it may be found.

As for the third dogma, the “doctrine of disinterestedness,” Carlson claims that my critique is unnecessary, since there is no contradiction between disinterestedness and alert attention, something the tradition encourages.  The disagreement here, however, is not over whether aesthetic appreciation involves careful attention but is over the nature of aesthetic experience.  The traditional theory is inveterately attitudinal.  It assumes the dualistic psychology that philosophy has not been as successful as modern psychology in throwing off.  Tradition proclaims that the aesthetic resides in a distinctive state of mind, a contemplative attitude that rests on the first two dogmas of objectification and separation.  Aesthetic engagement is quite different.  It is somatic as well as psychological, a total participation of the human person as part of a field within which appreciation is continuous with other factors that include a center of focus, a creative, originative factor, and a performative dimension.  That engagement occurs in other situations does not undermine the theory; on the contrary, it confirms its claim to continuity with the qualitative range of experience.

But the crux of Carlson’s discomfort with abandoning the dogmas of aesthetics lies in what he sees as the loss of the aesthetic itself.  We need the dogmas, he insists, for without them we would not have any way of demarcating the aesthetic from other experience, such as religious nor, indeed, for calling any appreciation aesthetic, at all.  Furthermore, the dogmas are necessary to preserve the essential concept of the discipline we call aesthetics. [6]

Of the two alternatives Carlson allows - offer a new theory or relinquish the aesthetic altogether - Art and Engagement, he argues, does neither, but instead makes free use of the aesthetic in the traditional sense.  Here Carlson is half right, for the book does not choose either of his alternatives.  There are, however, still others.  My effort was rather to recast traditional aesthetics in a way that absorbs its insights within a larger scope that replaces disinterestedness with engagement, separation with continuity, and the constriction of aesthetic value with its pervasiveness. [7]  I do not wish to abandon aesthetics, but retaining it does not require preserving the eighteenth-century aesthetic of disinterestedness.  My intent is rather to return art and the aesthetic to the integral place it has occupied in most human cultures throughout most of human history, while preserving the acute awareness of aesthetic value that this so-called modern aesthetics of disinterestedness has had such a hand in developing.  Carlson overlooks the alternative I have actually chosen, and his criticism, in fact, commits the very error he accuses me of making.  That is, it begs the question by assuming that the tradition is implied in any reference to the aesthetic.


Carlson caps his critique by asserting that I fail to take proper note of the distinction between aesthetics and meta-aesthetics.  Discriminating between normative theory and metatheory has serviced a generation of philosophers, and Carlson is right to recognize its limitations, noting that the normative and the theoretical, while different, are closely related.  Yet he appeals to the distinction here to characterize the three dogmas of aesthetics as primarily metatheoretical with fairly weak normative significance, while the aesthetics of engagement is largely normative with little metatheoretical power. [8]  This goes to the core of the disagreement, for the distinction raises the very question of the nature and methodology of aesthetics with which this discussion began.  The relation of art and theory is precisely what is at issue here.

Separating normative aesthetics and meta-aesthetics presumes that aesthetic theory can be elaborated independently of what happens in our encounter with the arts.  That this is not done so much these days (pace Kant) is tacit recognition of the aesthetic relevance of artistic practice and aesthetic experience.  I have long been convinced of the necessity of this connection and, indeed, it grounds the argument of Art and Engagement.  My intent in revising aesthetic theory was in response to appreciative experience that the tradition will not allow.  An aesthetics of engagement is more permissive, encompassing both the art canon and its vanguard.  To the extent that the dogmas define and guide aesthetic appreciation, they are normative; to the extent that they do not, they are irrelevant.

A difference between normative aesthetics and meta-aesthetics may seem evident, then, but it can hardly be assumed.  Indeed, it would be well to return to the time-honored function of philosophy here and question the obvious, even or especially when what is obvious is of philosophers’ own making.  Yet the meta/normative distinction may retain some limited value.  A useful application here is not between art and theory, which interpenetrate, but in distinguishing different levels of theoretical criticism.  By keeping my proposals distinct from Carlson’s metatheoretical critique of them, we can avoid confounding the affirmations of the one with the presumptions of the other.

Arnold Berleant

Goshen, Connecticut 06756

[1] See Allen Carison, “Aesthetics and Engagement,” British Journal of Aesthetics 33 (1993): 22-28; and Arnold Berleant, Art and Engagement (Temple University Press, 1991), pp. 11 ff.  An earlier and more extended statement of my argument appears in “The Historicity of Aesthetics - I and II,” The British Journal of Aesthetics 26 (1986): 101-11, 195-203.  I offer a somewhat more conciliatory treatment of the tradition in “Beyond Disinterestedness,” The British Journal of Aesthetics, forthcoming.

[2] Carlson, op. cit.  Carlson draws primarily on my earlier and more extended statement of the case in “The Historicity of Aesthetics.”

[3] For an early statement, see The Aesthetic Field (Springfield: C.C. Thomas, 1970).  More recent ones appear in Art and Engagement, passim, esp. chs. 1, 2, 9, and 10; and in “Beyond Disinterestedness.”

[4] Carlson, op. cit., p. 25. Cf. Art and Engagement, pp. xiii, 4, 49.

[5] Op. cit., p. 22.

[6] Op. cit., p. 24.

[7] See Art and Engagement, ch. 10.  In all fairness to Carlson, this was not stated explicitly before “Beyond Disinterestedness.”  Yet whether my proposals constitute a new aesthetics or a radical revision of the tradition depends on what one appeals to initially in identifying the aesthetic.  The difference in the designation, while real, is merely a conceptual one.  What is more to the point is the fact that the aesthetics of engagement does not sacrifice the aesthetic but rather re-establishes its scope and character.

8. Op. cit., p. 25.