The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

April  2004

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Thomas Munro

Knowledge and Control in the Field of Aesthetics

The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1941, 1-12.

IN times of war and economic distress, anyone who writes, reads, or teaches aesthetics is likely to feel an obligation to defend such an outlay of time and energy.  Assuming that those who make this outlay are not called upon at present for more immediately practical service in support of civilized institutions, what apologia for aesthetics is possible?

One defense is to admit that aesthetics is a useless subject - perhaps the most completely so of all subjects - and then to urge the value of keeping alive some spark of interest in pure theory for its own sake; some example of the uncorrupted love of truth and beauty to which humanity may return when the storm is over.

Inspiring as this ideal may be, it goes unnecessarily far in admitting the complete impracticality of aesthetics.  To be sure, no one can claim for aesthetics important immediate results in action, comparable to those of military strategy, chemistry or statecraft.  Nor can one easily prove that aesthetic theory has had much effect on action, even in the field of art.  For trends in aesthetic theory have on the whole followed, not preceded, major trends in art; justifying or condemning the latter after the fact, and largely ignored by later artists.  But this inefficacy is not necessarily permanent, and may perhaps be corrected by a different approach to aesthetics itself.


Obviously, we have not yet achieved scientific understanding and control of art, or of human nature by the means of art, in any degree approaching that to which we have achieved these ends in other fields of phenomena.  Through chemistry and physics we do, in substantial degree, control the physical world, for good and for ill; through medicine, hygiene, animal husbandry and horticulture we control, to a less extent, the world of plant and animal life.  Through the social sciences we have achieved some understanding of human institutions and group behavior, but considerably less control.  Through psychology and its educational and therapeutic applications, we are beginning the scientific conquest of mental phenomena.

The relations of art and of aesthetics to these other fields are manifold.  A work of art is in some respects a physical and chemical phenomenon; in some respects a social and economic one; in some respects, psychological.  Knowledge about its nature, origins and functioning can be derived through the methods and viewpoints of all these sciences, and all can show us how to use and control it in certain ways.  But none is especially interested in works of art as such, or devotes a major part of its effort to describing and experimenting with them.  They enter the social and psychological sciences as one among many types of phenomena, and are studied there in rather limited, specialized ways.  Aesthetics is traditionally the subject which concerns itself with works of art and their attributes, directly and explicitly.  But so far, it has failed not only to achieve scientific understanding and control in the realm of art, but even to accept that aim as one to be consciously and systematically worked for.  Even the words “control of art,” or “control by means of art,” have a strange, fantastic sound, as if one were proposing something impossible, and perhaps undesirable.

Yet such control is, to some extent, being actively practiced today, and has been practiced for several millennia.  As all students of history know, art has been one of the most powerful instruments of control by organized religion, by governments and dominant social groups.  As a means of propaganda, it is a potent weapon of totali-

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tarian states today, in such forms as oratory, pageantry, music, idealized portraits and repulsive caricatures.  In the service of modern capitalism, it has achieved complex and costly developments in the form of advertising and other commercial arts.  Educators make increasing use of art, such as textbook illustrations, models, motion pictures, and theater projects, as means of directing the mental development of students.  Doctors use art to correct mental maladjustments and relieve nervous distress.  To some extent, nearly everyone uses art and thus achieves some sort of control with it; not necessarily for any ulterior end, but perhaps for the immediate enjoyment, escape, or enriched experience it can bring.  That is, he uses it to control his own immediate moods and trains of thought.

In the hands of clever manipulators, such as are found among advertising and propaganda agencies, radio, book, and cinema producers, the control of art reaches high levels of efficiency, though usually along restricted lines.  These persons can often predict with fair statistical success what effects a certain type of art will have on masses of people, as manifested in their willingness to buy, listen, vote, obey, or fight.  But such control is not only selfish and antisocial in many cases; it is also, on the whole, unscientific, empirical, rule-of-thumb.  It often fails for no apparent reason, and contains a large element of guesswork. People can use art and achieve some control by it, as they used heat to cook and fermentation to make wine, long before scientific physics and biochemistry understood the basic principles requisite for their accurate, extensive control.

In every realm of phenomena, human thought passes gradually from folklore to science; from guesswork, wishful thinking, dogmatism and vague speculation to verified knowledge; and as a result, to more effective control, including collective use and management for the common welfare.  In several realms (the older, more exact sciences) it has achieved the passage to a comparatively high degree, although by no means completely.  In aesthetics and ethics, it has scarcely begun, but is in a state of slow transition, as new scientific resources become available for approaching ancient problems - or,


rather, for approaching afresh the phenomena of art and human conduct.  (In the process, the ancient problems sometimes turn out to have been based on misconceptions and false assumptions, and to require a thorough restatement.)

Modern science had gone a considerable way before Francis Bacon gave conscious, explicit utterance to certain of its aims and methods.  As more clear-sighted progress in the older sciences followed Bacon’s heralding, so now it might occur in the study of art if Bacon’s own approach were consistently applied there.  The understanding and control of art are advancing apace without waiting for aesthetic theorists to give the word.  They are advancing, not only through scattered scientific researches and experiments, but through extremely practical and sometimes mercenary - even deceptive and destructive - uses, as in the management of advertising, propaganda, and other arts for popular consumption.  Applied aesthetics does not wait for pure aesthetics to solve its abstract problems, but proceeds to experiment with rule-of-thumb hypotheses derived from practical experience, and usually not regarded as pertaining to aesthetic theory.  Pure aesthetics, on the other hand, might learn much by observing the results of such practical experience in the control of art.

This cannot come while aestheticians are still so largely preoccupied with the traditional problems handed down to them from past philosophies.  Notice how aesthetics is defined in Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.): “The branch of philosophy dealing with beauty or the beautiful, esp. in the fine arts; a theory or the theories of beauty, its essential character, the tests by which it may be recognized or judged, and its characteristic relation to or effect upon the human mind…”  Thus the aesthetician’s quest is directed from the start, not toward a set of actual phenomena to be understood and if possible controlled, but toward a conceptual will-o’-the-wisp, an abstraction whose meaning is endlessly debatable and ambiguous, so that he never can be sure that he has found his quarry or is looking at it.  Hence he may spend his days as many writers

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have, and cover countless pages, with fruitless debate over the proper definition of beauty.

The outlook is scarcely clearer if he is told, as in Webster’s following definition, that aesthetics is “the scientific study of taste (sense 7).”  For taste, in its turn, is said to mean “the power of discerning and appreciating fitness, beauty, order, congruity, proportion, symmetry, or whatever constitutes excellence, esp. in the fine arts and belles-lettres.”  Again, “taste” in this sense is not an objective term for a set of phenomena which can be sought out and studied by anyone.  Whether any particular case is or is not an example of it is debatable from the start.

To be sure, the word “beauty” and the word “taste,” like “ugly,” “sublime,” “romantic” and other names for the traditional aesthetic categories, are phenomena of human thought and behavior, and can be objectively studied as to their origins, meanings and uses.  But the scope of aesthetics can hardly be limited to mere semantic study of its own terminology.  In modern times, it refuses to confine itself to the study of a few abstract categories, attributes, and alleged standards of value.  Its discussions usually deal with works of art, and these are commonly recognized as its primary field of phenomena.  If “art” itself is not defined in a confusingly eulogistic sense as restricted to very skillful, good or beautiful products; if it is conceived objectively, so as to include any picture, any statue, any poem or piece of music, and works in other mediums as well, whether good or bad, it denotes a readily accessible field of phenomena.

German writers have made more use than we of the concept “general science of art” (alligemeine Kunstwissenschaft).  Some writers understand it in a sense different from “aesthetics,” the latter being taken in the more traditional, philosophical sense.  The principal German periodical in the field has been called “Journal of Aesthetics and General Science of Art.”  Others identify the two, and conceive of aesthetics itself as the general science of art.  The term “science of art” is still avoided by writers in English; partly because they are impressed by the degree to which present studies


of art still fall short of scientific status.  The term “science of art” stands for a future goal, not a present achievement; but there is some advantage in keeping the goal explicitly before our minds.  In so far as aesthetics itself becomes regarded as the science (or would-be science) of art, there is of course no need for the distinction.

To describe aesthetics as a future science tends to suggest at once the approach of Fechner and his followers up to the present day; a disappointing approach so far, which has undeservedly monopolized the term “experimental aesthetics.”  For it has implied, not the broadly experimental attitude of all intelligent thinking, but an over-reliance on attempts at exact quantitative measurement and the laboratory type of psychological procedure.  The progress of aesthetics to scientific status can not be hastened beyond certain limits, and is even retarded by a misguided, premature devotion to extreme behaviorism and statistical measurement, with consequent ignoring of less exact, less rigorously objective methods.  Most attempts at exact measurement in aesthetics so far have turned out to be either dubious or trivial, avoiding central problems or advancing specious claims to have solved them.  In the thirty-three substantial volumes of the Zeitschrift für Aesthetik, there has been comparatively little of such deceptive arithmetic, and the goal of a science of art has been approached on the whole in a more tentative and flexible way.

In all countries, most of the recent books, articles and courses produced under the name “aesthetics” have extended to a much wider scope than debate over the abstract meaning and supposed laws of beauty.  Even the more distinctly philosophical tend to make increasing reference to particular works of art, as well as to specific types and styles of art.  Although one hears of the “aesthetics of music,” the “aesthetics of sculpture,” etc., most aesthetic discussions emphasize comparisons between the arts, and factors common to them.  Recent aesthetics has become, on the whole, a rather highly generalized kind of art criticism, reporting current issues in the interpretation and evaluation of old and modern art, with some attempt at clarification by the author, and defense of one or another view.  Its methods

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have been literary, along lines of informal exposition and argument, rather than attempts at quantitative or even strictly logical demonstration.  It has remained fairly distinct from art history and cultural history, in spite of some overlapping, largely through avoiding chronological or genetic organization.  Instead, it has sought to explain the basic nature and principal varieties of structure in art, the elements in form and how they are organized.

It deals with questions of value, sometimes to analyze the philosophical or psychological nature of aesthetic value; sometimes to discuss alleged “art principles” or laws and standards of value in art.  Here it has been, on the whole, increasingly timid about affirming definite standards, and increasingly relativistic in conceding that many different kinds of art may be good under different conditions and for different purposes.  This has come about, not so much through the arguments of philosophic relativists, as through the wider acquaintance of modern aestheticians with the tremendous variety of art forms, past and present, each of which has fulfilled some function in its own cultural setting.

Another main element in recent aesthetics has been the psychology of creation and appreciation; of the artist’s processes and of aesthetic experience.  Most systematic texts on aesthetics include chapters on these subjects, under one name or another.  In other words, aesthetics is not only the science of art itself, of works of art, but also the study of those types of human activity and experience most closely related to art.  It is the study of art as an activity, and also of the contemplation, use and enjoyment of works of art.  Say Webster, in an additional definition, aesthetics is “the psychology of the sensations and emotions that have the fine arts for their stimulus.”  But one can hardly limit the study to sensation and emotion, for reasoning, imagining, and other functions also have important roles in the process.  Since there is still much obscurity surrounding the nature of those complex, variable processes we vaguely call “creation” and “appreciation,” and since they are hard or impossible to observe in a behavioristic way, current accounts of them in aesthetic theory are


likely to be a compound of speculation, introspection, and scraps of laboratory research.

Limited as our knowledge and control of them are at present, they provide another field of phenomena for aesthetics to examine.  From a psychological point of view, even “taste” can be objectively considered, if we give that word a different meaning from the one quoted above.  Taste, that is, need not be defined as “good taste;” as ability to discern and appreciate value in art; but in a more factual sense, as a tendency to like certain things and dislike others; as a set of actual habits and standards of preference, whether right or wrong.  In that sense, everyone has taste, and the problem of its genesis, varieties and modes of operation becomes an objective psychological problem.  In aesthetics or aesthetic psychology, we study it with special reference to works of art and certain closely related types of object, such as scenes in nature.

But “taste” in any sense is not the whole problem of aesthetic psychology, and has long been overemphasized, in general theory and in experimental research.  When paramount stress is laid on the question of what people like or should like in art, what they consider beautiful or ugly, and for what reasons, the whole subject is likely to appear rather trivial to the outside world.  Such an emphasis often springs from a narrowly individualistic hedonism in regard to art in general, and a consequent ignoring of the many important functions - intellectual, moral, practical, and other - which art exerts in society, in addition to pleasing the senses and emotions of the individual.

Again, the task of control in this field is one that society has to undertake with or without the aid of aesthetics.  It does so, for example, in art education; in training the prospective artist, in teaching “art appreciation,” or in teaching simple artistic techniques as a part of general education.  It undertakes, by implication at least, to develop the abilities of the student in dealing with works of art: his powers of creation, of appreciation, or both.  Yet what are these powers, and how do they function in the actual processes of creation

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and appreciation?  How do individuals differ, and how does a given individual develop from childhood to maturity as an artist or a connoisseur?  To what extent can powers of imagination, perception, or original conception and expression be taught, and what are the best ways of doing so?  To what extent is technical discipline in traditional forms, or free expression, the more effective means to these ends?  Teachers of the arts must assume some hypothetical answers to such questions and act upon them, either blindly or with full recognition of the underlying problems.  But as yet, aesthetic psychology gives them little scientific help in devising effective means to ends.  Hence our educational control of art abilities is still extremely slight and uncertain.  We do not even know how much effect any system of formal education can have, in interaction with the potent forces of heredity, home environment, and enveloping socio-economic trends.

Discussion under the name of aesthetics has been steadily branching out away from its traditional preoccupation with abstract categories, to take in a wider and wider subject-matter.  The old problems are not lost permanently from view, for we keep returning to them with a clearer understanding of their cultural genesis, and of their specific implications when applied to concrete data.  For example, the concept of “unity in variety, order in multiplicity” appears in ever-new and changing lights as we discover how many different ways, unsuspected by classical philosophers, artists of primitive, exotic, and contemporary cultures have found for organizing their diverse materials.  Aesthetics does not need to stop being philosophical, merely because it carries on more detailed, empirical research than in the past.  There is always need - in fact, greater need as the scope of investigation extends - for the philosophical work of coordination and generalization.  The old, speculative aesthetics “from above” will not be wholly replaced by the opposite, Fechnerian kind, “from below.”  As in all other sciences, there will be constant oscillation between empirical data and theoretical hypotheses, both narrow and broad in scope.


As aesthetic discussion keeps taking in more data and theory from cultural history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and other sources, traditionalists occasionally ask, “But is all this really the proper field of aesthetics?”  Is it not the task of psychology to study the processes of creative and aesthetic experience?  Is it not for the social sciences to study the social origins and functions of art?  Is it not for art history and criticism to analyze in detail the countless different types of form in art?  These questions reveal a misconception of the nature of science, as if its “fields” were like the sharply bounded plots of land claimed by private owners under capitalism, and by sovereign states under nationalism.  On the contrary, the fields of all sciences overlap indistinguishably.  No science owns any one to the exclusion of other workers who may wish to deal with it.  The various sciences are merely somewhat different points of view, or phases in a vast, cooperative endeavor.  The boundaries between their fields of phenomena are flexible and arbitrary, based on temporary expediency rather than on deep-lying divisions in the universe itself.  The more significant question to ask in regard to any particular phenomenon or problem is not “to whom does it rightfully belong?” but “in what various ways can it be effectively studied, with a view to social understanding and control ?“

Certainly, all the data and problems of aesthetics are studied by other sciences, from other points of view and in other contexts.  Psychology might consistently take them all in as incidental parts of its general description of human nature; but as a matter of fact psychologists rarely consider works of art in any great detail.  Sociology might also take them in as social phenomena; but in most books on sociology they are overwhelmed and reduced to cursory treatment by a mass of other material.  Art history and cultural history are usually so preoccupied with chronological trends and influences that they pass rapidly over questions of general type and principle.  These and many other subjects yield occasional revealing commentaries on the arts; but all have other major interests.

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Because of the admitted importance of the subject-matter, there is need for some science, some fairly distinct group of workers, to concentrate upon the theoretical study of the arts and related types of experience.  Whether it be called “aesthetics” or not is immaterial; but that traditional name is already in use.  It needs no radical redefinition, but only a general acceptance of the extended meaning which actual trends in discussion have already given it.  It should draw upon all other sciences, all other sources of information and facilities of research and experiment, for aid in its inquiries.

There is much to be done along this line, in bridging the gulfs which various groups of scholars and scientists have dug between each other, in the form of university departments, specialized professional schools and associations, and specialized periodicals.  It is to be hoped that this new Journal will help secure genuine cooperation between the many workers in fields now artificially separated, who are interested in various approaches to aesthetics.

World conditions could hardly be more unfavorable to new ventures in a subject of remote and debatable practicality.  But conditions in the world of science and scholarship are in some ways highly favorable to the rapid progress of aesthetics toward scientific status.  As Comte pointed out a century ago, the possibility of scientific advance in any field depends to a large extent on whether the necessary prerequisites are available.  For aesthetics, they were not present in sufficient amount in Fechner’s day.  But the past three generations have accumulated enormous resources, along two main lines.  One is the understanding of art forms, their variety, cultural development, and relation to other factors in social history such as the economic, political, religious and technological.  (It is necessary to glance at a mid-nineteenth-century book on art history to realize how vastly our horizon has since expanded, as a result of archaeological and ethnological research, exploration, translation, musical recordings, museum collections, and reproductions of unfamiliar types of art.)  The other is a greater understanding of human nature through the many branches of scientific psychology and psycho-


analysis.  This provides a general framework of knowledge and theory, within which the student of aesthetic psychology can endeavor to fill out some of the remaining large gaps in our understanding of how people think, perceive, feel and imagine, learn, and develop in the complex situations of art.

Modern aesthetics can undertake not only a synthesis and reinterpretation of these recent discoveries, but also a systematic sponsorship of new inquiries based upon them.  As a result, we may look forward to an increase in the extent and reliability of generalizations and predictions concerning (a) the psychological and cultural configurations, individual and social, which tend to produce various types of art; and (b) the tendency of certain types of art to produce certain effects upon certain types of person under certain conditions, both in direct experience of the type usually termed “aesthetic,” and also in other types of experience and behavior.  Such generalizations are a prerequisite for scientific control in the field of aesthetics.

Curator of Education

The Cleveland Museum of Art.




The Competitiveness of Nations

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April  2004

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