In the October 8 issue of The New York Review of Books, artist, art historian, and critic Julian Bell offers a sumptuous interpretation of two recent publications on art history and aesthetics, Art Without Borders: A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity and The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution; the former is by the amiably redoubtable multidisciplinary academic Ben-Ami Scharfstein, the latter by Denis Dutton, the similarly multidisplinarian academic and founder of Arts & Letters Daily, a wonderfully inclusive aggregative website of scholarship and criticism that, for some reason, has been seen by certain critics as a slight against his integrity as a scholar. Both Scharfstein and Dutton are terrific and fun prose stylists, something they share – along with their varied interests – with Arthur Danto, a writer whom they otherwise seek to distance themselves from.
It is this intent to distance oneself from a particular others' opinion, often seen as necessary on the part of the critic, and even align oneself with a caustically contrarian position – sometimes this seems the primary impetus for many a critic's work – that Bell draws attention to, among a many other valuable things; but it is this insight that drew me in to his article, if not solely what kept me reading. This particular brand of critic seeks an identifiable foe, in other words, and then seeks to trounce this foe; the criticism itself serves as a means of defining the critic against someone or something else more than anything else: it is an exercise in ego distinction. This runs throughout criticism, and not just of the contemporary sort. Many of the most visible cultural and artistic critics – if not necessarily the best – seem to found their opinions and resultant articles as if antagonism were their driving force. Sasha Frere-Jones does this with relish, as do Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the defiantly, often self-contradicting champions of a particularly myopic brand of atheism; but what is often most visible in the works of these exemplars of "foe-istic" criticism, beyond their sometimes enjoyable, sometimes grating sarcastic verbosity, is their evident flaws in critical cohesion. They seek so much to define themselves against something that they lose their way in finding a distinct train of thought that they themselves may follow.
It is a relatively small part of Bell's article, but one that certainly deserves to be delved into further elsewhere as a study of trends in criticism.
Bell's article is a terrifically coherent and wide-ranging – and still trenchant, for those who like their criticism to offer yuks at the expense of others – critique of these two refreshingly approachable and often incisive books. With great pith, Bell picks apart the value and shortcomings of both texts, with more interest and emphasis on the former characteristic but acute analysis of the latter. It's not necessary to have read either work in order to get something out of this article, although, time permitting, both are worth at least a visit to the library; but I'm recommending it because it's just a fun and provocative read, an uncommonly unpretentious consideration of aesthetics and the study thereof. Unfortunately, it is only available online for three dollars – unless you have an NYRB subscription – , a fairly hefty price for an article of as many pages; should you be willing to dole this out, and should you be willing to follow a link to get there, you may find the article here. Otherwise, should you have access to this issue, I heartily recommend it.
I would love to hear your reactions to the article, or certainly anything else herein mentioned.