Over at 5 Books:
Could you give an example of the kind of question that stimulated you to get into philosophy? Often practising artists and even critics are sceptical about the subject, saying that it misses the point of the arts.
Well, as both an artist — I was a fledgling poet, and I did go to film school — and then as a critic at that time of my life, which was the 1970s, I was vexed by the tendency towards relativism. When I made various things, I didn’t mean them to be open to any interpretation possible. I also felt that a number of critics were using works of art to ride their own hobbyhorses, and defending this on the grounds of relativism. I wanted to investigate the philosophical foundations of that kind of interpretive freedom, and to discover whether or not there might be a philosophical foundation to my own conviction that some interpretations were right and others were wrong.
My view is that the philosophy of art is something that arose to deal with a specifically modern problem. Before the eighteenth century, people talked about the individual arts but they didn’t think of them as a unified system. In the eighteenth century you begin to get a feeling that certain things go together — poetry, theatre, dance, music, painting, and sculpture. Prior to that, things could be put together a little differently — music could go with mathematics, or painting could go with medicine, because both apothecaries and painters ground things in pestles. In the eighteenth century we get this formation of what we call the “Fine Arts” and what they called in those days the “Beaux Arts.” They were thought to be unified by the notion of the imitation of the beautiful in nature. But no sooner was that view afoot than there was a crisis: the crisis of absolute music. Absolute music — music without text or programmes — became more and more central. Other art was said to aspire to its condition but, of course, an imitation theory didn’t fit that view very well so other views had to be discovered and a whole range began to be fielded including expression theories, formal theories, and aesthetic theories. This, in turn, was exacerbated by the growing velocity of the appearance of an avant-garde. No sooner did one view of the nature of art appear than it had to be repaired because something else came down the pike. The reason I think that the philosophy of art is particularly modern, and the reason that the twentieth century was so involved with it, was that it had to deal with the constant challenge of the avant-garde. We see that in the first of the texts that I’ve chosen, by Clive Bell. His book,Art, is a defence of a then emerging avant-garde: the avant-garde movement of post-impressionism.