New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism

A Study in Semantics and Evaluation

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PROBLEMS IN MEANING
have become the great repositories of "established" or "good" usage, so that dictionary definitions are of course extraordinarily helpful. Moreover, one would never dream of defining volitionally most of the words we use. Would it not be an incredibly awkward, indeed an impossible task, to give each word a volitional definition before using it? Yet without doing this, we manage for the most part to understand each other well enough.
A recognition of the importance of usage, however, has a minimum of bearing upon the crucial terms of esthetics and art criticism because, as we have seen, the meanings of these termsin contrast, say, to terms which designate common objects or common actsare exceptionally unfixed and unstable. Consider in this connection not only those words already mentioned ("art," "beauty," "truth," "esthetics," "judgment," "value," and "quality"), but the following: "objectivism," "subjectivism," "realism," "naturalism," "classicism," ' 'romanticism,'' ' 'form,'' ' 'content,'' ' 'representation,'' "rhythm," "style," and so on. All of these words are constantly receiving multiple definitions, so that any attempt to find a single precise and preferred usage for them would be in itself a tremendous, if not a hopeless task, and its outcome, because inevitably tentative, would prove to be historically interesting rather than practically fruitful. If, on the other hand, volitional definitions are made the essential preliminaries for further discussion, the critical problem at hand is immediately simplified and clarified.
In the opening chapter of his volumes upon the history of Spanish painting, Professor Post admirably illustrates this correct semantic procedure in his definitions of those much abused words "realism" and "naturalism." He proposes sepa-
thoroughly attacks the so-called "doctrine of usage." It is not necessary for my purpose to consider the pros and cons of this much argued question of usage, but it is at least worth pointing out that the discussion hinges to no little degree upon the exact sense in which the word "usage" is used.