Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 3, 1999
Michael Kelly, ed. Encyclopedia of Aesthetics New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 2224 pp.; 90 b/w ills. Cloth $495.00 (0195113071)

The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics will be a useful resource to students, practitioners, and historians of the arts, as well as to aestheticians and other philosophers. But this may not be evident from its title. For those who define terms narrowly, this publication tests the boundaries of “aesthetics” and “encyclopedia.” However, those who are simply wary of reading about aesthetics or of consulting encyclopedias will be pleasantly surprised. Aesthetics, here, is interpreted broadly, and the approach to being encyclopedic is to take a panoramic snapshot of current activity in a large discourse community.

Editor Michael Kelly acknowledges that the discipline of aesthetics is commonly misunderstood as a facet of academic philosophy still focused on classical or eighteenth-century issues, still Eurocentric, and perhaps even isolated from the cultural phenomena that it examines. Without excluding the traditions of aesthetics, the goal of Kelly’s team of editors includes capturing the variety in current aesthetic studies and further, programatically moving related fields closer together. Signed articles under more than 600 main entries have been contributed by scholars from a variety of disciplines. Among these roughly 500 contributors, only a minority are philosophers. The entries include not only issues and thinkers central to aesthetics, but also subjects more typically identified with the contemporary arts, the history of the arts, environmental studies, psychology, sociology, law, anthropology, and other fields. All of the arts appear, but a substantial emphasis has been placed on the visual arts. (“We wanted to make it clear that aesthetics is intimately related to the history of art.” [p. xv]) Music and literature are also addressed, without neglecting some representation of theater, dance, and popular culture. Entries on many non-Western traditions and theorists strive for multicultural scope as do a strong variety of ethnic and gender topics. The introduction clearly sates the criteria holding this diverse collection of materials together, but these rules for selection are necessarily complex. They might be summarized by noting that the range of topics corresponds to recent publication trends in the discipline of aesthetics, but also includes some outlying topics, probably selected for having “a defining impact on aesthetics” (p. xiv).

Our expectations for encyclopedias may have been set too high in the seventeenth century, when Sir Francis Bacon described his encyclopedic Instauro magna as a scientific endeavor requiring “a total reconstruction of sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations . . . a thing infinite and beyond the powers of man” (published in 1620 though 1623, incomplete, of course). His hopes for objectivity survive in the tone of most modern writing for encyclopedias and many people still imagine the authors of encyclopedia articles as informed but distant observers of the scholarship on a topic. But in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, one usually finds articles written by active participants in the academic discourse. (In fact, two out of three of these contributors cite their own publications in the bibliographies that accompany each article.) The knowledge and authenticity these voices bring to their essays is invaluable. Naturally, this close proximity presents the danger of skewed perspectives. But Kelly has insured balance, not only by passing the essays around to numerous readers en route to publication, but also by dividing many entries into sections and assigning these parts to separate authors. The entry on “Politics and Aesthetics,” an extreme case, is written by six people, each taking such subtopics as “Overview,” “Culture and Political Theory,” “Difference,” “Politicized Art,” “Aestheticized Politics,” and “AIDS.” Although most of the encyclopedia’s articles simply summarize published scholarship, several go further, offering fresh arguments and insight. The currency of some of the entries is surprising for a paper encyclopedia. Some could date quickly, such as the article on artistic appropriation and copyright, which centers on two mid-1990s test cases. But Kelly asks us to consider The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics “as the beginning rather than the end of critical discussion” (p. xv). In each of these ways, this encyclopedia sometimes resembles a special issue of a journal. Kelly’s work as editor of Columbia University’s Journal of Philosophy may have influenced this quality. Like a good humanities journal, this aesthetic encyclopedia will make interesting reading for experts and neophytes.

The undergraduate student shares Francis Bacon’s hope that an encyclopedia will be fairly comprehensive. They look to it for an introduction to a new topic and want its scope to include any subject with which they are unfamiliar. This ideal aside, Kelly and his team have succeeded in a reasonably broad coverage of aesthetics by defining aesthetics liberally, by introducing and concluding articles with extensive cross references, by supplying sixty-six pages of well-built index, and probably by coaxing their publisher into producing these four heavy volumes. The biographical entries for architects, artists, and musicians are the least effective area of coverage, because the criteria for including an artist is not always clear, and this type of information is easily found elsewhere. The article on Eugene Delacroix, which treats his writing rather than his artwork, is a useful inclusion that could not be found in other reference works. Andre Breton, John Cage, and some other figures are also emphasized as critics and theorists. Such other entries as the ones on Louise Bourgeois, Ad Reinhardt, and Frank Lloyd Wright are well-written, critical biographies on unquestionable masters, but are not clearly linked to the discipline of aesthetics. They are tied no more closely than Jackson Pollock, Louis Sullivan, Antonin Artaud, or the many other omitted names that could be mentioned.

Each reference book must find its place, since the market for large reference sets is small. Oxford’s Encyclopedia of Aesthetics successfully claims such a space between other recent and important publications. For the majority of its main entries, no comparable heading can be found in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 vols. New York: Routledge, 1998). Even when comparable entries exist, most exhibit a significantly different point of view (Plato’s life and work as opposed to Plato as an aesthetician) and its contributors are more uniformly credentialed in philosophy. Roughly half of the material in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics can be found in Grove Press’s massive Dictionary of Art (34 vols. New York: Grove, 1996), but the articles there are normally much shorter and often take purely historical approaches. Several articles unique to The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics—"Artist," “Contemporary Art” (as an international phenomenon), “Craft,” "Creativity"—suggest not only that The Dictionary of Art’s tendency toward specificity makes it hard to use for some general topics, but also that it may be weak in subjects related to the profession of art. One of the stated aims of the Oxford publication is to prove useful to practicing artists. (p. xvi) Similar relationships might surface from a comparison to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (20 vols. New York: Grove, 1980). The one-volume Companion to Aesthetics (David E. Cooper, ed. Blackwood, N.J.: Blackwell Reference, 1992) provides only about 130 briefer entries that are much more tightly bound into a less interdisciplinary setting. As a subset of the book reviewed here, the Companion has nearly been made obsolete, but continues to have some value as an alternative point of view and for its handful of unique articles.

As the first multivolume reference work in English devoted to aesthetics, The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics was likely to be a useful publication for someone. The pleasant surprise is that it proves useful and interesting to a broad assortment of people.

Henry Pisciotta
Head of Fine Arts and Special Collections, and Scott Vine, Psychology and Philosophy Reference Librarian, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries

Scott Vine
Psychology and Philosophy Reference Librarian, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries

Please send comments about this review to