3:AM: You’re also a philosopher of aesthetics and music in particular. What do you say aesthetics is and why do you think it is ‘essentially democratic’? This doesn’t seem obvious – there are those who’d say its for the aesthete or connoisseur, for a kind of elite, and that classical music is elitist too – so why is that just wrong?
AH: Philosophical aesthetics – because not all aesthetics is philosophical – considers fundamental questions about art and beauty that are not answerable wholly within the disciplines in question, by which I mean the arts. Artists have an obvious and central contribution to make in answering these questions, and philosophers should consider what they have to say; but the reverse is also true. Philosophical questions about the arts include, obviously, “What is art?”, “What is beauty?”, “What is an aesthetic judgment?”, “Is music the universal art of sound?”, “Can radically abstract painting be distinguished from design?”…I’m not sure I’d say that addressing these questions is an essentially democratic process; maybe it should be, in that anyone ought to be able to understand philosophical questions, given appropriate education. What I think is essentially democratic is artistic criticism. It is implicit in Hume’s essay “Of the Standard of Taste” – though he might not have acknowledged it – that anyone can become a true critic, through experience of, and practice in considering, a range of artworks. Scholarship is not essential, and indeed may be counterproductive.
3:AM: You disagree with some of your contemporaries like Fred Beiser when they claim that aesthetics was an eighteenth century invention don’t you?
AH: This is a very tricky question, and I’m not an historian or an art historian, just a philosopher. I wouldn’t say aesthetics was “invented” in the 18th century; “discovered” would be better, but even this view might be too radical. What happened in that century was a unification and codification of both art and aesthetics. The art historian Oskar Kristeller argued that the “modern system of the fine arts” only appears at that time – poetry, drama, music, painting, sculpture and architecture are regarded as species of the same genus. Plato for instance did not have this overarching concept. And Kant separated the value-spheres of aesthetics and ethics, bringing together philosophy of art and philosophy of beauty, including an aesthetic attitude to nature. (In the Middle Ages, a religious conception had made beauty and moral goodness inseparable.) So modern aesthetics began with Hume and Kant, even though many of its materials are found in Plato and Aristotle.
I should say that I wouldn’t regard myself as an expert on this. I read historians and art historians, and try to make a judgment. Philosophers have a contribution to make here, it cannot just be the historians who decide whether aesthetics was an 18th century invention.
3:AM: You say both Kant and Adorno are important to your approach? Is it the notion of disinterest that you find so potent in Kant?
AH: Kant is the greatest philosopher to have addressed aesthetics. That’s because he is probably the greatest philosopher to have addressed anything. He understands that aesthetic judgments have the paradoxical feature of being subjective, yet making a claim to objectivity. Disinterestedness is in fact a deeply problematic notion. One should recognise one’s own tastes for what they are, but – against what Kant suggests – that does not invalidate them as an ingredient of aesthetic judgment. Kant fails to recognise the intrinsic value of dialogue and discussion in aesthetic judgment; Hume is superior in this respect.
3:AM: Adorno you say attempts the difficult task of trying to unify aesthetics and art analysis, criticism and history, something that Hegel also attempted but few others. Can you say what you mean by unifying these elements?
AH: Well, I feel it is essential that people working in aesthetics should be art-lovers who respond to philosophical problems that arise in the arts. They don’t have to be art or music historians, but they should want to immerse themselves in the arts. There is a tendency, instead, for philosophers to import issues into aesthetics from other areas of philosophy, in particular metaphysics and to a lesser extent philosophy of mind, when these questions have no real bearing on the arts as they are practised. Hence rather otiose debate on the ontology of the artwork, or on whether it is “rational” to be moved by fiction – debates that artists and artlovers would have difficulty understanding, or taking seriously. Adorno recognised this problem, hence his motto (from Schlegel) for Aesthetic Theory: “In that which is called philosophy of art, usually one thing is missing; either philosophy or art”. Philosophical aesthetics should try to ensure that neither is missing.
Perhaps I have an advantage in that I am what some would regard as a trained musician. But this training wasn’t that unusual – I had piano lessons till the age of 18, and went through the grade exams. Later I took some jazz improvisation courses and had a few lessons in jazz piano and jazz singing – in the case of the latter, really to learn something of what was involved. That was it. I am fortunate in that I’ve been able to find ways to connect my love of music with my academic profession in philosophy.
3:AM: In your book you argue for an aesthetic conception of music as an art. What’s so special about music and how is it understood through its history?
AH: For much of its history, music was a low-status art, or at least a low-status activity – one has to be careful here, given the lack of a system of the arts till the 18th century, so that comparisons that come naturally to us, would not have been made in pre-modern eras. Then in the 19th century the situation was reversed, and Pater was led to declare that all art aspires to the condition of music. Actually I think that music does in some respects still have a low status – musicians are apparently meant to live on air, while their work is downloaded for free and they are asked to play at the London Olympics for nothing. The claim I made about an aesthetic conception says that music is essentially an art – but “art”, I argued, can have either a capital or a small “a”. That means it is at least a craft, and is therefore meant to reward aesthetic attention. Muzak and commodified pop music are contemptible for that reason, as they fail to aspire to this end. That’s not a philosophical claim by the way – that they’re contemptible. But that’s how an aesthete, which I am in the sense of believing that art is valuable in itself, will regard them. People are squeamish about condemning commodified pop, but here I’m not even talking about music as commodified as ABBA – which I think has genuine musical content. I mean rather the huge quantities of dross that fail even in the very mean intention of being commercially successful. Maybe that makes me an elitist…