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  • The Philosophical Aesthetics of Dance: Identity, Performance, and Understanding by Graham McFee
  • Aili Bresnahan
The Philosophical Aesthetics of Dance: Identity, Performance, and Understanding by Graham McFee. 2011. Binsted, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd. xvii + 342 pp., appendix, bibliography, notes, index. $34.95 paper. doi:10.1017/S0149767713000077

Graham McFee is one of the few philosophers who can be credited with helping to pioneer and forge a path for dance as a fine art in the field of analytic aesthetics.1 His 1992 book, Understanding Dance, following Francis Sparshott’s 1988 book, Off the Ground: First Steps to a Philosophical Consideration of the Dance, was a significant introductory step toward situating dance in a field that has traditionally focused primarily and nearly exclusively on painting, sculpture, literature, and (more recently) music.2 In general, dance has not been taken seriously as a legitimate art form by the philosophic academy; indeed, it was originally excluded from Hegel’s system of the fine arts (see Sparshott 1983). Analytic aesthetics has yet to fully recover from this historical exclusion. The articles and books on dance in the field have been sporadic, often ad hoc, and dance has yet to attract enough scholars of analytic aesthetics to sustain a robust dialogue on what counts (or should count) as the key features of dance as art.

In light of this background, it comes as no surprise that The Philosophical Aesthetics of Dance, McFee’s follow-up to and extension of Understanding Dance, draws heavily on the larger body of rigorous literature that exists in the analytic aesthetics of both the concept of art in general and on music, the art that is perhaps closest to dance given its performative, non-clearly-text-based, and often abstract nature. Although he avoids one traditional focus of analytic aesthetics by refusing to provide a definition of dance as art, eschewing the philosophical practice of constructing definitions that requires dance to be defined in terms of its necessary and sufficient conditions (those conditions without which dance could not be what it is and that distinguish dance from all other forms of art), his book does cover a large portion of the other categories under which art is discussed analytically (see 270). Its strengths for analytic aesthetics lie in his detailed and in-depth discussions of what should count as a dance “work” of art (what McFee calls a “dancework”) for purposes of numerical identification, appreciation, and historical preservation. Particularly helpful is his discussion of how a dancework should be construed as (1) neither “autographic” nor “allographic” under Nelson Goodman’s categories in Languages of Art, but a performable and re-performable artwork with a certain history of production (see Part One); (2) an abstract, structural “type” for which subsequent performances are “tokens” (see Part One, Part [End Page 142] Four, and Appendix); (3) an authored work created by a choreographer that has a historical identity, meaning, and continuity that should depend in part (although not exclusively) upon what the choreographer intended (see Part Two and Part Four); (4) a work whose performances are performed and interpreted by (but not created by) dancers (see Part Three); (5) an object with perceptual artistic properties that is to be understood appreciatively and conceptually (see xii, 150, and Part Four); (6) an intentional object that exists in a broadly institutional context under a concept of art (see xiv, 150–2, 167–8, 272–8); and (7) an object that can be reconstructed and re-performed under certain conditions (see Part Four).

Despite this heroic attempt, one might wonder whether an analytic philosophy of dance as fine art construed under the traditional categories of analytic aesthetics (constructed primarily with the creation of enduring entities such as paintings, sculptures, and poems in mind) is adequate to tell us something important, even metaphysically important, about dance qua dance—an art form that McFee would undoubtedly admit is as much characterized as being an ephemeral art as it is by the history of its enduring works (see 96). Further, it could be suggested that it is precisely this ephemerality that provides an exciting, immediate, have-to-be-there temporality to dance as art, and that it...


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