by Daniel Albright

Reviewed by Patrick Fessenbecker


Published by Yale University Press, 2014   |   336 pages

At the center of Daniel Albright’s new book Panaesthetics is the question of the relationship between the arts: in what sense are both painting and music, or poetry and dance, the same thing, “art?” Acknowledging a long tradition contending that artworks of different media do not have much in common, and that thus the arts are disunified, Albright defends a unifying “panaesthetics.” He takes his departure in particular from Gotthold Lessing’s argument that the temporal arts of music and literature are fundamentally different from spatial arts like painting and sculpture.  For Albright, this emphasis on disunity misses the close relationship between the arts.

To offer a brief example of the kind of argument Albright uses to motivate this claim, a central part of his analysis concerns pieces of art that respond to art in other media. Following Adorno, Albright designates “pseduomorphic” art as art that attempts to duplicate some other medium, and “pseudomorphs” as the experience of that other medium you experience when viewing (or hearing) the original piece. To pick one of Albright’s many examples, in his 1902 painting Beethoven-Frieze Gustav Klimnt attempted to paint Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. What does one hear when looking at that painting?  Probably not the Ninth Symphony as an orchestra would perform it, but possibly not nothing, either.   And if it is true that one does hear something, Albright suggests, then perhaps music and painting are not as distinct as one might originally have thought.

Elsewhere he investigates, and defends, the possibility of musical narration. As he puts it, “the event, the kernel of the narrative, can in some cases be specified as exactly by music as by words.” Here, Albright describes Richard Strauss’s confidence that he could use music to tell a story. In Albright’s retelling, Strauss was so certain of his ability to use “purely orchestral means” to represent reality that he thought the listener of his Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks—or Lusty Strokes” would at one point be able to see Till “dressed as a priest,” oozing “unction and morality,” with the appearance undercut when “the rogue’s big toe protrudes beneath the cassock.” Albright’s understated comment on this claim—“whether it’s Till’s big right toe or his big left toe, Strauss doesn’t say” —indicates a persuasive skepticism of this level of representational specificity. Though Albright offers generally a vigorous defense of pseudomorphism, Strauss here serves as a cautionary tale for the would-be panaestheticist. This, then, is the general strategy of the book: while maintaining some skepticism about inter-medial translations, generally Albright seeks to show how each of the various media of art are capable of using techniques associated with other media, and that correspondingly a rigid distinction between them is untenable.

Most provocatively, Albright ultimately contends that the possibility of pseudomorphism is fundamental to the nature of art: as he puts it, “an artwork is an artwork precisely because it is especially susceptible to translation into an alien medium, and because those translations have a certain captivating aspect.” But this translatability leads into a discussion of another component of art: that it simultaneously invites interpretation and denies the interpreter satisfaction. He puts the point in terms of Cleanth Brooks’s famous claim that it is a “heresy” to think that paraphrasing art can capture its meaning (an argument I’ve written about elsewhere); for Albright, art is “not meaningful unless it can be paraphrased; but the paraphrase will always mean something different from the paraphrased.” Thus, there is a sort of liminality to the experience of art: we simultaneously understand it and understand it can never be fully understood. And it’s this liminality, more than anything, which emerges from Albright’s considerations of literature, music, and painting. Literature works both to make us remember and forget; music takes the form of a language and resists it; painting simultaneously uses narrative and refuses it. Thus the real point of the translatability of the pseudomorphic art for Albright is in fact the inevitability of its failure: something of the experience of art can always be translated, but some component of the initial artistic experience is also always left behind.

As a definition of art, how satisfactory is this? Certainly, it has the advantage of breadth: works in a variety of media that intuitively seem to be art do fall under this definition. But it might be too broad: it earns that breadth by diluting the meaning of the word “art” until it includes almost everything. Albright concedes as much, explaining that “anything is an artwork to the extent that it looks made.”  And he’s eager to admit that this includes natural objects that presumably are not made; as he puts it rather bluntly later in the book, “every thing is art; every sound is music. Even natural phenomena, such as shells or ravines, are aesthetic objects to the degree that they invite a play of contexts.” But this brings us back to the purpose of the book.  Albright’s “panaesthetics” was intended to link ostensibly different artistic objects, but if the conclusion “the arts are really the same” has as a premise “everything that exists is art,” one cannot help but feel that that the conclusion is somewhat trivial. The defense of “panaesthetics” turns out to be much less provocative than it appeared, working as it does by removing much of the thickness and specificity in the term “art.”

On the other hand, one might want to press a bit on the question of whether his definition is in fact broad enough. Albright is quite inclusive on the kinds of objects that can be artistic, but much less so on the kind of thing that counts as artistic experience. He has little to say on those who choose to see a movie because it’s funny, or to read a story because it’s suspenseful: instead, the primary and for Albright possibly the only genuine “aesthetic” experience seems to be the combination of comprehension and failure I’ve designated the experience of liminality. The real question about panaesthetics, then, is not whether music, painting, and poetry can in some sense be understood to be the same, but whether the experiences that make them valuable are the same: more specifically, whether the concrete feelings, sensations, and thoughts imparted by artworks—the experience of profundity in reading a book, or the experience of humor in watching a movie—are the same across the various artistic media. My sense is that they are not, and I hope in his future work on the matter Albright broadens the range of experiences he considers.

Patrick Fessenbecker is a professor in the Program for Cultures, Civilizations, and Ideas at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He completed his Ph.D. in English at Johns Hopkins University in 2014, and is currently working on “Novels and Ideas,” a book manuscript based on his dissertation. His essays have appeared in New Literary History, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Studies in English Literature, and he has written reviews for Review 19, Modern Language Notes, and The Journal of Literary Theory.

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