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Art In and Out of Context

From: The Journal of Aesthetic Education
Volume 45, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 118-122 | 10.1353/jae.2011.0004

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Philosopher David E. W. Fenner walks a fine line. In Art in Context: Understanding Aesthetic Value, he attempts to throw out the dirty bathwater of formalism while leaving the baby, the work of art itself, unscathed. He defines formalism as the approach to art in which the viewer “restricts her attention to the formal properties of the object, properties that are accessible through the senses . . . in the object” (xv). Fenner is not interested in defining art, which is the primary role of professional aesthetics, but experiencing it (1). And he argues, quite rightly, that formalism cannot account for the richness of aesthetic experience. Fenner accounts for this richness through “context,” by which he means “all those various lenses—ethical, social, sexual, emotional, imaginative, political, religious, and so forth—through which a work of art may appropriately be viewed” (1). He argues that art is best understood—that is, has the most value—if it is experienced in this broader and much messier context. And Fenner is right. Art cannot or should not be defined or limited to philosophical abstractions, taxonomies, and syllogisms, which is the standard fare for most philosophical reflection on art and the aesthetic. It is an embodied cultural practice and thus it is, at its essence, a contextual practice. Fenner recognizes this, for he states, “I locate the argument of this book within the history for art and the art world, as well as within the history of Western aesthetic theory” (xv).

Fenner initiates his elaborate argument against formalism by offering an account of the rise of the notion of “art for art’s sake,” the apex of formalism, which regards art’s identity and power to be rooted exclusively in the material properties on display in the work of art. Such a notion of art also requires that the viewer approach the work in what Kant called an attitude of “disinterest,” that is, with a mind intent on not using the work of art for nonaesthetic purposes, be they political, social, or religious. Fenner is deeply critical of the public art museum as an institutionalized space that created the illusion that art not only could be experienced without reference to “context” but also came to be assumed to be the space intended by artists to be so experienced. Fenner argues that many if not most artists do not make art for the museum, that is, make art for art’s sake and assume the viewer will approach it in a manner of “disinterest.” Fenner rightly observes that to identify the “aesthetic” with formalism and the theory of disinterest is to “hijack” it (42). Fenner argues that formalism and disinterest theory “are essentially theories of decontextualism” (80).

Fenner devotes a significant portion of his text to offering an in-depth analysis and survey of a vertiginous array of philosophical approaches to art. He discusses and dismisses various “intrinsic” approaches to art, which assume that a work of art bears its own significance outside of itself, and “instrumental” accounts of art, which locate the value of art in the effect it has on the viewer. If the value of a work of art does not lie in the work itself or the viewer herself, then it must be found, Fenner reasons, in the artist. And so he suggests that the value of a work is inextricably bound to the artist’s intentions (74–77). Fenner describes his own view of art as a “noninstrumentalist extrinsic account” (79). After a chapter addressed to unpacking the problems of formalist and disinterest theory, particularly through the thought of Kant, Fenner offers a survey of various different contextualist theories, such as those of George Santayana, John Dewey, Arthur Danto, Jerrold Levinson, Plato, Tolstoy, and Noël Carroll, to name only a few of the many philosophers he usefully discusses within the context of his argument on context. However, one of the unfortunate tendencies in surveys of aesthetic theories and philosophies of art is to turn the rich and robust thought of such titans as Tolstoy, Dewey, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Plato into merely examples of certain “intrinsic” or “extrinsic,” noncontextual or contextual approaches to art—in short, their evocative and provocative thought is...



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