Only a promise of happiness: The place of beauty in a world of art (review)

Journal of Aesthetic Education 43 (4):pp. 124-129 (2009)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of ArtJoe WinstonOnly a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, by Alexander Nehamas. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007, 186 pp., $29.95 cloth.We cannot doubt that, since the turn of the new millennium, there has been something of what Michael Bérubé has called a "Return to Beauty" in cultural and literary scholarship.1 Bérubé locates the beginning of this return in an article written by Marjorie Perloff for the Chronicle of Higher Education in December 4, 1998, and in an opinion that he shares with Rita Felski, he sees it as a misguided attack on cultural studies.2 It is clear that when Elaine Scarry spoke disparagingly of "the enemies of beauty" in her influential book On Beauty and Being Just, she had the more extreme relativists of cultural studies in her sights.3 Far from being a short-lived spat, however, the renewed scholarly interest in beauty has grown, moved on a pace, and shows no sign of intellectual exhaustion; and most of this work has not, as Bérubé would have us believe, directed itself against postmodern aesthetics. Wendy Steiner, in The Trouble with Beauty, took Modernism and the art of the twentieth-century avant-garde as her target;4 whereas John Armstrong's The Secret Power of Beauty provided a sustained and accessible look at the history of aesthetic thought and reminded us of the significance of beauty in our lives, as both a concept and as a value.5 Arthur Danto's The Abuse of Beauty traced, like Steiner, the rejection of beauty to the rise of Modernism. Significantly, he did not attack Modernist art but recognized how it drove a wedge between beauty and the arts, showing us in the process that art need not be beautiful to be of value. In reassessing Modernism's rejection of beauty, however, Danto concluded by arguing forcefully that if beauty need not be excluded from art, it cannot be excluded from everyday living: "Beauty is an option for art but not a necessary condition. But it is not an option for life. It is a necessary condition for life as we would want to live it"6When a scholar with the reputation of Alexander Nehamas turns his attention to beauty, then we know it is still on the agenda in a big way. As with John Armstrong's work, one of the many delights of this book is its clarity of expression and the accessibility of its prose. In no way is Nehamas ever talking down to or patronizing the reader, however. He takes us on a philosophical journey that is rigorously argued and backed up by a wide selection of examples drawn chiefly from the world of art, which is indeed the subject of the writer's attention. If he has cultural studies in his sights, then he is very quiet about it. In fact, the canonical writers of cultural studies, whether they be Foucault, Bourdieu, Williams, or Gramsci, are entirely absent from the text. Instead, the central role goes to Plato—on whom Nehamas has written in two previous publications7—with important [End Page 124] contributions from Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietszche, and Clive Bell, not to mention Proust and Thomas Mann or the artworks themselves. This has a strong whiff of the canon about it perhaps; be that as it may, only a reviewer with a very large ideological drum to beat could remain deaf to the argument itself. For these individuals are all supportive of Nehamas's own thinking and of the argument he has himself developed, which, I think, is not only important to the world of art and art education but, more broadly, to the aesthetics of contemporary schooling itself.Before beginning to look at this argument in detail, it is worth noting that Nehamas has something telling to say about the principles and role of the reviewing process, something that cannot but make me feel wryly self-conscious as I begin it here. A review, he tells us, is a kind of advertisement to help...

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