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Art as Aesthetic Production vis-a-vis the Artist's Intention
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-01-12 09:05:12
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…the question ‘What is art?” invites analysis of words and thoughts as well as the phenomena they refer to. But, being a philosophical question, it will not be satisfied by lexicography or psychology. I don’t suppose that my task here is to inquire how various people commonly, or uncommonly, use the word “art” in English or corresponding words in other languages, nor to canvas popular, or unpopular, opinion about what art is or ought to be. Taken philosophically, the question calls for decisions and proposals: What are the noteworthy features of the phenomena to which the word in question seems, however loosely, to call our attention? What are the significant distinctions that need to be marked for the purpose of theoretical understanding, and that the word “art” or one of its cognates (“artwork,” “artistic,” “artistry,” etc.) is most apt and suitable for marking? How does art, defined in a comparatively clear, if somewhat unorthodox, way, differ from closely related things?...What I will try to defend is a definition of art—actually, a rather old-fashioned one in essentials—that I have come to regard as best adapted to the requirements of a sound philosophy of art…I don’t see any good reason for not regarding “Guys and Dolls” and “The Pirates of Penzance” as artwork, along with “Tannhauser” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” When it comes to other sorts of product now much studied by scholars—bed-quilts, cigarstore Indians, Dixieland jazz, old Tarzan movies—it may strike some people hat we have wandered to the edge of art, if not beyond. There will, of course, always be a question whether something was indeed produced with an aesthetic intention, but even when this intention was probably minimal and the skill to carry it out deficient, the social function served may be the same as that of clearly artistic activities, or closely related to it. So a broad definition of art that still retains its essential connection with the aesthetic interest has much to recommend it.”

                                                              --Monroe C. Beardsley (“An Aesthetic Definition of Art”)

Monroe C. Beardsley (1915-1985) was a professor of philosophy at Temple University. He is widely known for his important work on aesthetics and the philosophy of literature. He belonged to a group known as the New Critics, who attacked the practice of going beyond the meaning of the text. With William Wimsatt, he formulated “the intentional fallacy,” which criticizes art theorists who think the intentions of the author determine the meaning of a work of art.

We have already seen that Morris Weitz and Derrida thought that the term “art” cannot be defined; others think that it is the artworld that confers the status of artwork. We have also briefly examined the linkage made by Collingwood (rooted in Vico’s philosophy of history) between art and emotion. Beardsley, on the other hand defends the primacy of the artist’s “art making” intention and aesthetic interest. For him this is the necessary condition for some thing being a work of art. This view appeals to common sense by insisting on the importance of the artist and the artist’s goal in creating the artwork. But it also does something else: it limits art to products of human activity, that is to say what man makes. Other things, such as a beautiful sunset, do indeed satisfy our aesthetic interest, but for Beardsley artworks are made with that purpose in mind.

In his essay “An Aesthetic Definition of Art” Beardsley begins his argument by clarifying why it is important to define art. In an almost instrumentalist mode, he points out that a definition of art and attendant criteria, can be put to many uses: for example, a critic needs to decide which objects are even worth reviewing; funding agencies can better decide which projects are worthy of grant money; the art historian can better choose which are is historically consequential. As Beardsley correctly explains, without such definition it becomes rather difficult to make those decisions rationally and with a modicum of objectivity. Foremost among those who need a definition of art is the anthropologist who studies a broad, cross cultural swat of man’s history. He needs to determine which activities of man count as artistic.

All of the above gives rise to a puzzle: given the concepts “artwork” and “artistic activity,” which should get priority and why? We have seen that Plato and Danto begin with the artwork. To the contrary Beardsley insists that the concept of artistic production should be given priority as we search for an adequate definition of art. The reason is that artistic production has two clearly defined aspects: 1) the productive activity itself, and 2) its reception. In other words, an artwork is not only something produced but also something received and appreciated by an audience. As Beardsley puts it: “An artwork is something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest.” This statement provides the basis structure for Beardsley’s definition of art: both roles, producer and receiver of the artwork are central to his definition.

Further clarifications are needed on the importance of the artist’s intention in producing the work. Many critics regard this claim contentious but Beardsley considers it crucial. Only something that is produced with a very specific intention in the mind of its producer (i.e., that the work satisfy an aesthetic interest) can be counted as a work of art. It is curious however that Beardsley also criticizes the intentional fallacy of assuming that the author’s intentions are relevant for understanding the meaning of the artwork. Be that as it may, it all leads to this final question: What exactly is the aesthetic interest? To answer that question Beardsley goes back to an idea that can be found in both Kant and Hume, namely that there is distinctive type of pleasure that we desire to experience which artists create in order to satisfy it. And here lies the importance of Beardsley theory of art; it forcefully rearticulates some forgotten classical ideas on the nature of art and shows that they remain crucial and relevant despite the tendency on the part of the modern cultural philistines (those who think that because something is newer and contemporary it is ipso facto better) to consider them outdated.

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