Why Art?

Cleveland Museum of Art; Medici Chapel, Florence/Alinari/Art Resource
At left, a detail from Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang’s painting The Ch’ing Pure Mountain in the Manner of Tung Yüan, 1617; at right, the back of Michelangelo’s statueDay, circa 1530. Ben-Ami Scharfstein compares these two images in Art Without Borders.

Here are two books by professors of philosophy—one in Tel Aviv and the other in Christchurch, New Zealand—keen to grapple with the nature of art. Ben-Ami Scharf-stein is a veteran scholar of art and comparative religion: Art Without Borders, published as he turns ninety, surely stands as his aesthetic summation. The middle-aged Denis Dutton is best known as the founder of the Web site Arts & Letters Daily, but The Art Instinct is the first book into which he has committed his energies as a controversialist. Both professors are warmhearted educators, glad to engage their readers on a conversational level rather than to deliver pronouncements ex cathedra, and each is fired by an evident love and reverence for art. But what kind of conviction can they lend to aesthetics? Can they confer on this latecomer among intellectual projects—once memorably denounced by the Australian professor John Passmore in an essay entitled “The Dreariness of Aesthetics”—some aura of urgency?

Art Without Borders, the larger of the two books, focuses principally on the visual arts. Initially, it is true, Professor Scharfstein’s search for an “open aesthetics” leads him to float a proposal that the act of speaking could itself be considered as art; but he hardly carries this forward, unless by his own commitment to extended discussion, digression, and storytelling. (At one point he wryly describes himself wishing, as he sits at his computer, to do nothing “but only, stubbornly and self-forgetfully, keep on writing.”)

The reason Scharfstein wants to open wide the doors of aesthetics is that he can hear so many voices clamoring to gain entry. The terms of an inquiry that originated in Enlightenment Europe, predicated on classical antiquity and the Renaissance, must now be reshaped to accommodate art from every tradition across the globe. And it is not only what constitutes art, but what can be ascertained about art, that has expanded exponentially during Scharfstein’s decades of teaching. The ever-mounting studies of historians, anthropologists, and psychologists confront him with a daunting stack of information awaiting interpretation. If only he can devise sufficiently supple principles, perhaps he can encompass it all, showing “how art’s variety is qualified by its unity, and vice versa.”

Scharfstein keeps on writing; Scharfstein keeps on reading. His library stretches from New Kingdom Egypt and Tang Dynasty China, through Giovanni Pietro Bellori’s idealist art theory of 1664 and Marcel Griaule’s 1930s fieldwork among the Dogon of Mali, to the texts of postmodern conceptualists such as Sherrie Levine and the recent “neuro-aesthetic” studies of Semir Zeki. Myths from Tibet, Aboriginal Australia, and the Inuits rub shoulders with statements by Pliny the…

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