The Future of Aesthetics

by Francis Sparshott,
200 pages,
ISBN: 0802044263

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In Defence of Beauty
by Amy Mullin

Erudite and playful, opinionated and open-minded, Francis Sparshott's The Future of Aesthetics is a splendid and splendidly accessible investigation of the intertwining futures of aesthetics, philosophy, the university, and civilization. The text is based on Sparshott's 1996 guest lectures at Trent University, and the chapters keep to this series format. They are learned but chatty and, in inimitable Sparshott style, appear alternately rigorously organized and wonderfully rambling. Sparshott provides tentative answers to his questions about the relationships between aesthetics and philosophy, philosophy and the university, and the university and civilization. Moreover, he gives his readers ways to think in a more sophisticated manner about what the very terms themselves mean.

The Future of Aesthetics concludes with an afterword devoted to explaining something about Sparshott's authorial stance, and to exploring questions about his authorial point of view. It will be of special interest to those who value Sparshott's poetry, for he discusses not only his academic work, but also the sort of beauty he is passionate about: a beauty that expresses the "endlessly complex fascination of the harmonies and dissonances that result from multiple forces working together on the material world". This is an engaging conception of beauty which is, as Sparshott suggests, to be distinguished from the sorts recognized by other prominent contributors to the field of aesthetics. His understanding of beauty also provides important insights into his poetry, both in its genesis and in its structure.

The ninety-eight pages of the text are supplemented by a rather daunting seventy-five pages of notes. The notes, as Sparshott observes, are intended to elaborate on the lectures, not to document them, and the reader will not find it necessary to read them in order to understand the arguments in each chapter. In fact, I would recommend reading the chapters through once entirely, without reference to the copious notes, and then going back to the notes where interest warrants. The topics of the notes themselves are quite diverse and include citations of classical texts, overly brief (and therefore often unfair) exegesis and dismissals of recent and contemporary cultural theorists such as Michel Foucault and Edward Said, and accounts of Canadian environmental and educational policies.

Sparshott treats aesthetics as the variably converging and diverging intersection of three fields of inquiry: a theory of beauty, or what is admired for its own sake; a theory of art criticism and the rational basis for aesthetic judgments; and a theory about the role of artistic activities, especially those involving the imagination, in the life of the mind. Sparshott has made justly celebrated contributions to all three fields, particularly in his highly regarded books on dance: Off the Ground: First Steps to a Philosophical Consideration of the Dance and A Measured Pace: Toward a Philosophical Consideration of the Art of Dance.

Here, Sparshott devotes most of his discussion of aesthetics to the third field, exploring in particular the place of the arts in a map of knowledge. In the space of a few pages, he makes many important observations about different definitions of art, with particular emphasis on the definition of the fine arts as arts of the imagination. Imagination is conceived in the Aristotelian sense as the ability "to envisage possibilities beyond present experience and without regard to their realization". He also makes a number of illuminating remarks about the very concept of a map of knowledge, particularly regarding the extent to which a map can limit as well as guide, and its static nature, which can never reflect the changes undergone by the field it depicts and organizes.

Just as a map is necessarily conservative in this sense, Sparshott may appear at times a champion of conservatism. He is, after all, a noted scholar of Aristotle, in particular, and his lectures are peppered with references to classical Greek philosophers along with other canonical figures of Western civilization. More seriously, he often seems broadly dismissive of attempts to rethink or reformulate the canon. For instance, he criticizes feminism and multiculturalism, "along with other reformist isms", as "emphasizing scepticism or downright hostility toward traditional learning, rather than contributing to that learning itself". However, Sparshott is clearly committed to intellectual innovation, and he recognizes the extent to which "the maintenance of the old is obstructing access to the contemporary, which is what we urgently need to know".

Moreover, Sparshott is far from a stodgy defender of all things which have been taken as either signs or examples of civilization. He draws attention to interesting connections between the concepts of civilization and empire, and argues that we need to rethink our paradigm of what constitutes the latter, both recognizing that empires are necessarily associated with power, and remembering that power need not be conceived as oppression. As he remarks, "power is simply the ability to do things, and there is nothing inherently oppressive about such ability". Empires are, in Sparshott's definition, large-scale cultural and political organizations which make possible long-term cooperative endeavours. He argues that we need to think in more sophisticated terms about the relations between the unified high art of empire and the diversity of ethnic tradition. In a very salutary reminder, he tells us that ethnic and imperial traditions interact in complex ways and, moreover, "what is `ethnic' in one relation may function as `imperial' in another".

While Sparshott does recognize that feminist questioning of traditional aesthetics represents a "deep challenge" to the tradition, I wish he were as nuanced in his discussion of the relationship between ethnicity and civilization. Engagement with actual feminist scholarship (such as that carried out by Carolyn Korsmeyer, Linda Nochlin, and Hilde Hein), if only in his footnotes, could have ensured that when he discussed such theorists' so-called "backlash against civilization", he would not have presented those critics as retaining dichotomies between experience and reasoning or the private versus the public, and simply championing the former rather than the latter.

Sparshott's discussion of the research university, which he sees as central to the cultural organization associated with empire and civilization, ranges from a discussion of myths about the origin and function of universities, to a discussion of the different types of universities, and the reasons they may be valued or devalued by the media, the politicians, the wealthy, and the powerful. His account makes explicit reference throughout to the particular history of higher education in Canada.

The title of the book specifically mentions the future, and Sparshott makes it clear that the future that interests him is the one that can be projected from our present. About this future Sparshott does not pretend to prophesy. He alternates between the bleak prospect of a world in which "the big issues are no longer real to us" and original minds are shunned in favour of "docile cleverness", and a more hopeful vision of aesthetics, philosophy, and civilization as remaining permanent possibilities. The answer, he reminds us, depends upon whether we continue to be engaged by them and choose to sustain them. This book provides one more reason for continued engagement. 

Amy Mullin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.


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