Philosophy of aesthetics that is actually fun to read

Arthur C. Danto The Transfiguration of the Banal: A Philosophy of Art (1981), a classic of American philosophy widely read by contemporary artists, opens with a marvelous example. Søren Kierkegaard described a fictional red monochromatic painting, “The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea”. Imagine, proposes Danto, a sequence of visually identical artefacts with very different subjects: “Red Square”, a landscape of Moscow; “Nirvana”, a sacred Buddhist work; “Red table linen”, a still life; and a plain painted red square. These indistinguishable images would, he says, be very different works of art because, as the titles suggest, they have diverse subjects. Watch, if you will, how differently they are portrayed. And so what follows, Danto concludes, is that a visual work of art is not identified by its appearance.

Lydia Goehr Red Sea – Red Square – Common thread: a philosophical detective story (Oxford University Press, 2021) is a 650-page commentary focused on interpreting Danto’s three-page discussion. Danto’s thesis can be stated in a short sentence; although his particular examples are amusing, they are not necessary to understand the thesis. Why then is Goehr’s book so long? She talks about Giacomo Puccini’s opera Bohemian (1896), which begins with a scene of the bohemian painter trying to paint a picture of the Red Sea. (Goehr’s first book, it may be relevant to know, was a study in musical aesthetics.) William Hogarth is said to have painted this subject, the Red Sea, and so she considers it at length. And, of course, the Red Sea is associated with the emancipation of the Jews from their Egyptian captivity, so the story of anti-Semitism is relevant. Kazimir Malevich’s “Red Square” (1915) is also relevant here. In short, as soon as one begins to search in the history of art, in music and in cultural history, one finds a large number of red paintings and allusions to the Red Sea.

And the color red has many political associations. There is Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black (1830). In 1818, Stendhal, an opera lover, wrote a famous description of Gioachino Rossini. Moses. In several operas by Richard Wagner, as well as in Puccini Tosca, are more paintings. Raymond Pelez’s 1843 caricature of the Parisian Salon, which depicted monochromatic black painting, was an anticipation of Alphonse Allais’ better-known red monochrome, “Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shore of the Red Sea (Study of the Northern Lights )” (1884 ). Also, perhaps, Goehr suggests that Danto “had in mind the redness and squareness associated with the Communism culminating in a red Moses of the revolution. His examples are multiplying, for in Red Sea “everything and everyone is discussed based on the contribution made to the Red Sea Emancipation narrative and its anecdote.”

You don’t need to consider Kierkegaard’s example of the Red Sea painting to present Danto’s basic thesis. In his essay “The Art World” (1964), which was the source of Transfiguration, Kierkegaard is not mentioned. (The last sentence of my first paragraph states the basic thesis.) The examples, however, help to motivate this thesis. At times Danto considered the idea that philosophical texts are like works of art. Perhaps, then, we cannot fully understand his theory of red squares as works of art without considering their artistic, historical and political contexts, which Goehr so ​​elaborately constructs – the concise and abstract statements of philosophy and their expansive exemplification in the world cannot be separated.

In any case, Goehr’s way of thinking is contagious; Red Sea inspires this search for associations and antecedents. Its aim seems to be to erase or at least to undermine the usual distinction between philosophical texts and the commentary which elucidates them. As she puts it: “For me, philosophy works best when it goes through the material, abstracting its results, reasoning carefully and sincerely, but not with the result of leaving the material and the connections behind.” More precisely, Red Sea is not only, or not only, a commentary on Transfiguration but also a competing text that offers a radically original philosophical theory of aesthetics. Goehr argues that Danto did not present the complete philosophical history. What she lacked, she suggests, was understanding “her anxiety about analytic philosophy […].” Her comprehensive historical discussion aims to identify the limitations she finds in her narrative. If she’s right, we need her full collection of examples to connect Danto’s seemingly apolitical aesthetic to political and social history in a way she articulates.

So much for the exegesis. Does Goehr offer a plausible or even coherent way of thinking? I’m not sure, but I’m sure his story is passionately interesting. In an essay that is relevant here, Danto remarked, “I can’t think of an area of ​​writing as fertile as philosophy has been in generating forms of literary expression.” It does not include an example something like Red Sea, a commentary so ambitious, so original, so detailed and so poetic that it transcends mere commentary and becomes itself a distinguished contribution to philosophy. What is therefore most admirable is that Goehr not only presented an abstract theory of interpretation, but actually demonstrated his practice by exquisitely working the elaborate details of Red Sea, which is very pleasant to read. Arrived at the end, certainly a little exhausted, I was sincerely sorry that there was nothing more to read.

Red Sea – Red Square – Red thread: a philosophical detective story by Lydia Goehr (2021) is published by Oxford University Press and is available online and in bookstores.