The Unification of the Arts: A Framework for Understanding what the Arts Share and Why
Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2022
390 pp. Trade, £45.00
The notion of art has always been torn between two opposite yet complementary approaches. Art is opposed to non-art (science, business, entertainment, play, daily life, etc.) and that makes it possible to think of it not only as unique but above all a unified way of doing as well as thinking. Such “unity in diversity” approach is however questioned, or at least strongly nuanced, by our longtime tendency to classify and thus very rapidly hierarchize different forms of art, such as for instance the old-style difference between liberal versus mechanic arts or the more recent distinction between fine arts and applied arts. The very existence of different types of art, all of them now institutionalized as separate disciplines and their struggle for cultural prominence (we should not forget that the Renaissance term of paragone does less mean “comparison” than “struggle” between the arts) have not ended with the post-Romantic desire to obtain the fusion of all arts in a Gesamtkunstwerk or the contemporary tendencies toward intermediality, transmediality, interdisciplinarity, deskilling, collective and collaborative production, or the renewed dialogue with longtime “non-art” forms of creation such as science.
The book by Steven Brown is an attempt to build a new single theoretical framework aiming at a better understanding of what all arts have in common. Deeply rooted in cognitive perspectives and maintaining a permanent although very critical dialogue with biological and Darwinian takes on art, the novelty of this approach can be situated at three levels. First, Brown shifts the focus of the investigation from specific works of arts to art in general. While certainly giving many examples throughout the whole book, the author defends a very general and quite abstract approach that tends to supersede all that is too specific or contextual—hence, also the strong critique of the cultural, that is Western, biases of much biological readings of art as implicitly framed by typically Western objects and practices. Second, he also introduces a definition of art that is quite different from what we usually understand by that word. Indeed, the author abandons the conventional definitions of art as 1) an object, 2) a quality of beauty in an object, or 3) an indicator of craftmanship or creativity. Instead, art is defined here as “a process of performance”, with special reference to public display, group participation, and “specialized public performances and group rituals” (p. 4). This is of course a very radical and first sight somewhat counterintuitive reduction of what is understood by the notion of art, but for Brown it is the best possible way to grasp what arts have in common from a biological and evolutionary point of view: the forms and functions of art, which all have to do with expression but also with creation and communication not only in personal or individual terms but also at the level of the group and in terms of collectivity building, can only become visible thanks to this particular methodological and conceptual framing that accepts leaving aside our spontaneous ways of thinking on art. Third, the unifying approach defended by Brown is not at all an attempt to produce a “one fits all” structure. The author acknowledges fundamental differences between artforms, most importantly that between re-creation and coordination, the former referring to the “inherently narrative and symbolic nature of the arts” (p. 37), the latter being used here “in the commons-sense meaning of bringing people together and organizing their actions in physical space or time or both” (p. 12). The horizon of the book is then not the merger of all artforms in one single and exhaustive structure, but the effort to emphasize what all artforms have in common (here he pays a lot of attention to questions of rhythm as meaning enhancement and community building) and how these common features and mechanisms help understand how and why artforms can collaborate in terms of display and performance. At the same time, the author also stresses that looking into what artforms share also allows for a better understanding of their specific properties. In that sense, it is the “unification”, much more than the “unity”, that interests the author.
The Unification of the Arts is a thought-provoking study that will be a welcome challenge to many readers more familiar with traditional debates on art and aesthetics. Theories of art do normally not focus on display and performance in such a general and abstract way. More than one reader will be surprised by the putting between brackets of more classic definitions of art. In the line of evolutionary biology, Brown goes against the grain of what the study and practice of art are generally standing for today, with their strong emphasis on institutional, social, political, but also technological dimensions of specific works and contexts. Yet it is the very difference with these more mainstream or hegemonic ways of thinking that makes the book so helpful for more conventionally oriented readers and approaches, whose proper categories, biases, and hierarchies are powerfully challenged by this complete reorganization of the field. The Unification of the Arts equally offers a good opportunity to start reading other secondary literature than that we may be used to. Here, the analysis of narrative structures has no references to Gérard Genette and the discussion of the analogies, and differences between allographic and autographic arts do not find its point of departure in the work of Nelson Goodman, for instance. But readers may discover many references to less-known forms of research that the author always presents in a very didactic and thus stimulating way. Finally, the book also contains a strong plea in favor of pulling down the boundaries between production and reception, which remains a much-needed endeavor in our times of participative culture.