The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.1 (2002) 1-9
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Practice, Theory, Pleasure, and the Problems of Form and Resistance:
Shusterman's Pragmatist Aesthetics
University of Paris
First I want to stress that I fully agree with a number of critiques that Richard Shusterman formulates against analytic philosophy in its application to arts, especially the conclusion to which these critiques lead. Let me just offer a few remarks in accord with his general critique, before presenting my criticisms of some general theses of his "pragmatist aesthetics."
As I argue elsewhere, 1 we have no need of reading analytic philosophers to be informed about the analyticity and rationality of art. Schoenberg's so-called intellectualism indeed foreshadowed analytic views by stressing the role of the concept in musical thought. As the Viennese composer wrote: "music thinks itself." The composer thinks music; he composes with concepts. Analytic philosophers' recognition of arts as rational occurred as a kind of belated repentance for having cut off arts from philosophical rationality based on the view that artists deal with pure expressivity and should therefore be excommunicated from the world of cognitive achievements. Yet the philosopher should recognize that arts have an interesting rationality of their own, a rationality one can examine in the actual practices of art. This is an important point upon which I agree with Shusterman's pragmatist aesthetics. One should focus on arts as practices. This does not mean excluding a philosophical focus on the arts, but merely resisting the compulsion to formulate a global theory of what it is to be artistic. I am ready to turn my back to aesthetics in the classical sense of philosophical theories [End Page 1] stating what is beautiful. Theories—especially in the idealist German tradition—are a screen between arts as practices and us as recipients of so-called works of arts. I therefore agree with the practice-oriented perspective of "Living Beauty" (the subtitle of Shusterman's book). But this, I would argue, calls for a revalorization of living with form and having a "form," rather than for a rejection of form. Shusterman's critique of form is a troubling point I will return to later.
1. Theory as Interpretation
Granting that arts are practices (even though artists might pretend to theorize their art), it is legitimate to put into question the need that arts have for theory. Yet Shusterman's pragmatist approach to arts claims to be a theory of arts (1991, 95). The benefit of its being the right theoretical approach to art is the inclusion of popular arts or, generally speaking, arts that until now could not be recognized as truly artistic activities. One inclusion yields the other: if arts are in need of a theory, then popular arts can be part of the arts for the same aesthetical reasons that hold true of arts in general.
This implies that arts still need the entrance ticket of a theory to be recognized as such, "popular arts" included. It also implies that "popular" is just a label for arts that have not been admitted in the realm of arts until now. Thus in a better world, a "more democratic" one, popular arts are arts. The prejudicial distinction between high art and popular art should disappear by the magic effect of, so to speak, "enlarging the circle." This aspect of enlarging the circle is manifest when Shusterman urges us toward "a twofold opening": to "include popular arts" within the realm of art but also to show "greater openness to the ways high art can further a progressive ethical and sociopolitical agenda." This broadening strategy itself should be understood, he argues, not as the abolishing of the institution of art, but as its "transformation" (PA 140) (Shusterman 1991, 101-2).
Thus, one important question is how does pragmatist aesthetics differ from the philosophical tradition of rationality with respect to theorizing about the arts? Shusterman replies in part by suggesting the idea of using concrete transformative "interpretation" of artworks (and other practices) instead of mere...