20 DECEMBER 1963, Page 19

Art and Essence

The Structure of Aesthetics. By F. E. Sparshott. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 50s.)

ArTER the war, when English philosophers turned to examine theories about art, there was a broad unanimity in their response. Why assume that all arts are essentially similar and can use- fttlly be discussed• together? they asked. They did some good hatchet work on Croce and Collingwood, on the idea that art had an essence, that the essence was expression or intuition, and that this was a spiritual thing quite distinct from the sensible characteristics of works of art. (Even so, as far as I ,am aware, no account has appeared of how Croce and Collingwood got into their spiritual retreat.) Having disposed of the grosser form of generalisation about art, they left us with the assumption that to discuss all the fine arts together was mistaken or, at best, unilluminating.

One characteristic way of making the point was to invoke Wittgenstein's notion of `family resemblance': when we group together a number of kinds of thing by using the same word for all of them, it cannot be assumed that we do this by virtue of one characteristic which they all share. Rather, there may be a number of different qualities which link them together, without any one of those qualities being common to all. Wittgenstein's example was the use of the word 'game.' For purposes quite unlike those of Wittgenstein the notion of family resemblance was invoked in the discussion of general theories of art, with the suggestion that it was inappro- priate, philosophically gauche, to look for a characteristic of any importance shared by altar- pieces, symphonies, sonnets and tragedies.

The view that one could not find common characteristics which mark off all those things we call art, or all those things we call games, would be an abstird one for a philosopher to hold. It is another question whether doing so would be illuminating. Perhaps we only call something a game in as far as it is an activity we can alternate between taking seriously and unseriously. And perhaps this TS one important condition of calling something art. In itself such a generalisation is probably uninteresting—in some form or other it is commonplace. It may, however, become interesting when we move back and forth from the generalisation to particular cases, seeing how it might apply to an altar- piece, a sonnet and a symphony.

But generalisations were not really considered as instruments of critical thought • by these philosophers; rather they were regarded as ob- jects to be contemplated like Platonic forms. After the early papers, several reprinted in Elton's Aesthetics and Language in 1954, came the fashionable tide. Why should there be a philosophy of art and not of Helium, asked one contributor to Mind, but he does not seem to have taken his own question seriously, for surely, if he had done, he would have looked back into the history of the discussion of art among Philosophers, from Plato to Kant, and found some quite interesting reasons why there should have emerged a branch of, philosophy devoted to art: It would not, of course, have committed him to the view that, with the changed state of Philosophic knowledge, there should continue to be such a branch of philosophy.

The condemnation of generalised discussion of the arts received an unusual amount of public attention when a paper of Father Vincent Turner, published as part of a symposium, re- ceived acclaim in the literary periodicals. He Pointed out that igsthetics only became a distinct

branch of philosophy in the eighteenth century and at the hands of idealist philosophers, and he seems to have thought that aesthetics must be idealist, and; since appearing as a separate subject so late, cannot really be needed.

This philosophic fashion forms an important part of the situation which Profesor Sparshott faces in his Structure of Aesthetics, a compen- dious survey of theories of art and aesthetics. Theories about what constitutes art, about the :esthetic attitude, about beauty and expression are examined and classified. But despite the book's title and Professor Sparshott's interest in finding out whether aesthetics is a subject with its own unity, he does not succeed in bringing out the conrl'ections between the problems he raises. This is partly because his approach is to treat the theories he considers primarily as specimens to be classified rather than as argu- ments to be followed through. Constantly in reading one is left in a state of suspended ani- mation, the first moves in the argument have been set out, and then a quite perfunctory con- clusion is forced. This gives the book a quality of externality to its material, and a lack of thrust if you try to read it as a whole. As pre- liminary reading for putting one in the picture on a number of separate topics it should, how- ever, be very useful:

Perhaps the ground could have been surveyed and the subject given greater coherence if the author had made use of some historical per- spective; if he had shown how theories had been carried across from music to literature and thence to painting and back again, not only in classical antiquity, but since the nineteenth cen- tury, and how different assumptions about knowledge provided different grounds for group- ing the arts. In this way he might also have met the charge of dullness by showing how analogy and generalisation have in fact func- tioned.