- At the Crossroads of Ethics and Aesthetics
From Plato to Hume, few if any Western thinkers doubted that there was an intimate connection between art and ethics. Historically, most art had been in the service of the church or the state, or some other political authority, and therefore straightforwardly and overtly carried moral significance. No one thought it out of place to comment upon art with reference to ethics. And the same attitude, it would appear, was manifest in other cultures as well.
However, by the nineteenth century, a very different and even opposed perspective began to take-hold and to exert its influence. This viewpoint derives, by way of what is arguably a misunderstanding, from "The Analytic of the Beautiful" in Kant's Critique of Judgment. It can be identified by the phrase "l'art pour l'art" which first appears in an entry in Benjamin Constant's Journal intime. Constant uses the phrase to summarize what he's just been told about Kant's aesthetics from Henry Crabbe Robinson, a student of Schelling's; apparently Robinson or Constant used the expression "l'art pour l'art" as a synonym for Kant's notion of distinerestedness.1 For Constant, this appears to signify that art is not useful and that it has no purpose other than to be beautiful. Art is, so to speak, for its own sake and not for the sake of something else, like [End Page 248] moral education or edification. Thus, the ancient connection between art and ethics was severed at a stroke.
The view of "Art-for-Art's Sake," or sometimes stated as "l'art pur," initially broadcast by Constant and Madame De Stael was disseminated in Paris where it influenced people like the philosophy professor, Victor Cousin, and the writer Theophile Gautier who spread the doctrine even more widely. The term was also used by the critic Saint Beuve to describe contemporary artistic tendencies. Throughout the nineteenth century, as witnessed by Tolstoy's vituperations against it, the idea of "l'art pour l'art" flourished, blossoming into the aestheticism of Walter Pater, James McNeil Whistler, and Oscar Wilde.
The doctrine insinuates itself into the tradition of the analytic philosophy of art by way of one of its founding texts, Art by Clive Bell.2 In that book, Bell defines art as significant form in virtue of the power of significant form to promote what he calls the aesthetic emotion. To be in the state of aesthetic emotion, in turn, is to be transported "from the world of man's activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories are arrested; we are lifted above the stream of life." Of course, ethics is just one of those human interests that swim in the stream of life. So, on Bell's account, there is no direct relation between art and ethics, since by definition the aesthetic emotion is categorically different from and opposed to the ethical emotions. In fact, it is a failure of artistic appreciation to respond to art with "the ordinary emotions of life," such as the moral emotions.
In a number of ways, Bell set the agenda for much of the analytic philosophy of art to follow. For example, his emphasis upon discovering a definition of art has remained an obsession among philosophers even today. Likewise, his separation of aesthetic emotions from ordinary emotions, notably ethical ones, runs deep in analytic aesthetics. Two of the major post-World-War-II treatises on aesthetics, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism by Monroe Beardsley and The Philosophy of Art Criticism by Jerome Stolnitz, while masquerading as introductory textbooks, argue for the autonomy of art—the notion that art is a realm unto itself, having no truck with other social functions, such as the promulgation of morality.3 This persuasion fit nicely with one of the leading pedagogical regimes of the day—The New Criticism—which taught us not to wander outside the text where there be ethics. Many senior professors of...