- Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts by Daniel Albright
I undertook this review to celebrate Daniel Albright’s contributions to the theory of interrelations among the arts, and had nearly completed it before learning that he had died early in 2015. Apparently, he wrote Panaesthetics while fighting a fatal illness; it seems to have weakened him to the point where he could still display, but not longer coordinate, the contents of his magnificently furnished mind. The Yale press, often supportive of Yale graduates, published it anyway. Although this book itself unfortunately cannot be recommended, the issues it raises are still of vital interest, and are discussed below. See the list of Albright’s many earlier books in the posthumous Wikipedia article devoted to him, and Yale’s outstanding list of publications on the visual arts, to pursue panaesthetic questions further.
As Albright asserts, “The purpose of this book is to provide an introduction to the study of the comparative arts” (2). Albright does not sort into genres his widely diverse examples of artistic creation from Ancient Greece to the present (emphasizing England, France, and Germany since the eighteenth century). Instead, he focuses on how individual instances of works in one art respond to a work or works in another, selecting examples by free association. But he links his observations with a dialectical movement of thought, creating binary oppositions that call classifications into question, and identifies gray areas—places of indeterminacy—as privileged incitements to more nuanced thoughts. In this respect, Wolfgang Iser, although mentioned only once, seems a kindred spirit.
Seeking a middle ground between Marshall McLuhan’s claim that “the medium is the message” and Wassily Kandinksy’s belief that the medium is largely indifferent to the “message” of the work of art, Albright begins:
My own view is that the arts themselves have no power to aggregate or to separate—they are neither one nor many but will gladly assume the poses of unity or diversity according to the desire of the artist or the thinker. But the story of their comings together and splittings asunder is one of the great stories in the intellectual history of the West. […] I begin by looking at each artistic medium in isolation, always with reference to particular works, in order to see how artists’ theories and practices reveal assumptions about the ultimate purpose of art. […] (I can’t really compare a painting and a symphony and a poem—I can only compare words-about-a-painting and words-about-a-symphony and [End Page 193] words-about-a-poem.) Then we will look at the ways in which artistic media interact—sometimes cooperating genially, sometimes poaching on one another’s territory, sometimes dissonating, clashing.(3–4)
Albright finds in the German word Zwischenkunst (“between the arts”) an equivalent to his idea of panaesthetics: a space of interaction akin to the socio-political notion of “border theory” popularized by the late Chicana poet and essayist Gloria Anzaldúa. The arts he chooses to interrelate are literature, painting, and music. Here, though, he misses an opportunity for synthesis: one would think that these would form two major groups—literature, derived from origin myths and human family traditions (often preserved in persons’ names), and association of persons into larger groups would inevitably have an historical basis; and music and painting, in contrast, would be arts of the here and now, mediated by individual sense perceptions of light, sound, and pattern. Lyric poetry would be an intermediate form, often eliminating time-bound narrative and chains of virtual cause and effect, while capturing the impact of sense impressions and memories in an eternal present. But Albright fails to acknowledge the sophistication of the arts at their origins: flutes recovered from as early as 40,000 B.C. are based on the diatonic scale; cave paintings reveal an early awareness of color, proportion, perspective, and the possibility of rendering virtual motion.
Albright then defines art in general with four theses: 1) “Anything is an artwork to the extent that it looks made...