New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism

A Study in Semantics and Evaluation

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38                                 PROBLEMS IN MEANING
upon esthetics is sterile? Is it not natural that these people should regard this writing as being primarily of autobiographical interest?
The dangers in the use of real definitions and the frequency of that use in esthetics and art criticism may be further stressed by citing characteristic samples from the writings of Dr. Coomaraswamy: "Aesthetics, then, the science of sensation, rightly claimed by the psychologist as belonging to his . field of experimental science rather than to philosophy, is not the science of beauty, but the science of preferences." 69 In this passage we are being told what esthetics is: not how the word "esthetics" has been used or is used or should preferably be used, but how, because of the intrinsic character of its supposedly unchanging referent, it must be usedif we would not err. Metaphorically hypnotized as Coomaraswamy seems to be by the potency of words and by their traditional meanings, he fails to understand that the term "esthetic" may legitimately mean something quite different from his and from traditional interpretations. He is therefore able to attack not only the definition of esthetics as the philosophy or science of beauty, but to consider the current association of esthetics with disinterested contemplation false. The notion indeed of disinterested esthetic contemplation is for Dr. Coomaraswamy a "contradiction in terms"because, of course, only his meaning of "esthetic" is the real or true one.
The same dogmatism in regard to meaning, the same unwillingness to grasp the flexibility and the utilitarian character of language occurs in his discussions of art and beauty. "With Plato, and with Thomas Mann, we should refuse the name of art to anything irrational." 70 The point I am concerned to challenge in this quotation is the implication that "the name of art" possesses intrinsically a special significance which must not be contaminated. In this and other passages
69. A. K. Coomaraswamy, The Art Bulletin, June, 1939, p. 205.
70.  From a lecture entitled, "Figures of Speech, or a Figure of Thought?"