Its declared foundational aim is to promote study, research and discussion of the fine arts and related types of experience from a philosophical, psychological, sociological, historical, critical and educational standpoint.
Berys Gaut (St Andrews)
Stacie Friend (Birkbeck)
Dan Cavedon-Taylor (Southampton)
John Hyman (Oxford)
Elisabeth Schellekens (Durham/Uppsala)
Maarten Steenhagen (Antwerp)
Postgraduate Journal Editors
Ryan Doran (Sheffield)
Shelby Moser (Kent)
BSA: A memoirT. J. Diffey
The British Society of Aesthetics was formed in 1960 to promote discussion and research into the theory of art and criticism and the principles of appreciation. This objective of course expresses a particular moment in the history of aesthetics. The Society was founded by a group of people including Sir Herbert Read, Dr (later Professor) Ruth Saw and Harold Osborne. The Society is incorporated in law as a registered charity. Harold Osborne’ s knowledge and advice were indispensable to setting it up on a sound legal footing. Louis Arnaud Reid, Professor of the Philosophy of Education in the University of London was also active in the affairs of the Society from the beginning. Reid had written Meaning in the Arts, published in 1931 when, in Harold Osborne’ s words, “ writing on aesthetics by serious philosophers was still at a very low ebb in English-speaking countries” .
The first meeting of the executive committee of the Society was held in July 1960. Osborne, who was a long-standing friend of Sir Herbert Read’ s, was the founder editor, and thus the first of the three editors to date, of the Society’ s quarterly journal, The British Journal of Aesthetics. The first issue of this appeared in November 1960. The Journal has gone from strength to strength and maintains the pre-eminent position in the field first established by Harold Osborne. It has been published on behalf of the Society by a succession of Britain’ s leading publishers, first Routledge & Kegan Paul, then Thames & Hudson and since 1975, Oxford University Press. Terry Diffey succeeded Harold Osborne as editor in November 1977 and Peter Lamarque became editor in January 1995.
In its early years the Society was London based. Harold Osborne was a civil servant working in London when the Society was founded. The Society too had strong links with London University, particularly Birkbeck College. Ruth Saw, and another stalwart pillar of the Society from its earliest years, Ruby Meager, held posts in London University. Monthly evening lecture meetings addressed by guest speakers and followed by discussion were held during the autumn and spring terms. Visiting speakers included practising artists speaking of their work, philosophers, critics, art historians and educationalists. Speakers included Adrian Stokes, Alan Rawsthorne, William Empson, Kathleen Raine, Stuart Hampshire, John Bayley, Roman Ingarden and Yehudi Menuhin. For many years the meetings took place in the Holborn Central Public Library.
Though in effect London-based at the beginning, the Society was of course always a national society. Its membership was always national not to say international and from the earliest years it generally held an annual conference, bringing in speakers from the whole country and from abroad, e. g. Mikel Dufrenne. Moreover, one could generally count on meeting scholars from overseas who were in Britain at the time of the conferences, particularly our colleagues from the American Society for Aesthetics. However, it was the custom not to hold national conference every fourth year when the International Congresses of Aesthetics took place. But in 1980 the Society changed this policy in favour of holding annual conferences.
The first conference was held in London in September 1963 and they continued in various venues in London until the mid1990s when the conferences moved from London to St Edmund Hall, Oxford. Conferences were organised at Hanover Lodge, Regent’ s Park from 1967 to 1971 by Professor Eva Schaper of the University of Glasgow. Eva Schaper was a leading member of the Society from the beginning.
Harold Osborne and his associates, but particularly Osborne, had a strong international outlook. The Society always participated in the four-yearly international congresses of aesthetics. Indeed the story is often told that the Society was formed in the first place so that Sir Herbert Read, who became the first president of the Society, could attend the international congress of aesthetics in Athens. Allegedly you needed to be a member of a national delegation in order to attend. Whether this is true or not (I think there may be something in it) Harold Osborne and many other members of the society were, and many still are, far more widely involved in the international scene than just with the congresses. Read was accompanied to Athens in September 1960 by a good sized contingent which included Ruth Saw, Louis Arnaud Reid, Frank Sibley and Eva Schaper. The Society has engaged in many bilateral meetings with Societies from other European countries, it has friendly relations with the American Society for Aesthetics, and it has been active in contributing over the years to international newsletters and committees for aesthetics.
Early members of the Society included Benjamin Britten, Kenneth Clark, the BBC, John Gielgud, Ernst Gombrich, Ronald Hepburn, John MacMurray, Henry Moore, Victor Pasmore, Nikolaus Pevsner, Basil Spence and Richard Wollheim.
Professor Ruth Saw succeeded Sir Herbert Read as President of the Society, when Read died in 1968. Ruth Saw resigned the presidency in 1981 because increasing lack of mobility made it difficult for her to get to meetings. Harold Osborne then became President.
After Harold Osborne died shortly after his eighty-second birthday at his home in Switzerland in March 1987, Eva Schaper became President. After her untimely death at the age of 67 in June 1992 Richard Wollheim assumed the office until his death in 2003 with Richard Woodfield and Graham McFee respectively as vice-presidents. Malcolm Budd became president in 2003 and continues to uphold the office until the present day. Matthew Kieran has been vice-president and chair since 2003 and will be retiring from the post in Sept. 2008.
For much of its history the main activities of the Society have been concerned with publishing the British Journal of Aesthetics, the annual conference and promoting the kind of conferences mentioned above. Peter Lamarque recently retired from editing the journal and the editorship has passed over to John Hyman and Elisabeth Schellekens.
The Society has also ranged more widely in its activities than this might suggest, not only in the variety of its overseas contacts already mentioned, but in its concern to foster the study of aesthetics in Britain. For example, it is about to embark on sponsoring a PhD studentship in aesthetics and financially supports, though necessarily on a modest scale, other societies and individuals engaged in projects in aesthetics who apply to it.
T. J. Diffey, 22 October, 2003
Amended 1st August, 2008
In the year of the 50th anniversary of Herbert Read’s death, Jeffrey Petts looks back at the life and work of the BSA’s first president.
Herbert Read: Art, Anarchism and Aesthetics
A recent introduction by Will Gompertz, BBC arts correspondent, to a reissue of Herbert Read’s The Meaning of Art (1931) sets its contemporary relevance in the context of conceptual art. Duchamp’s meaning of art prevails, he suggests, and any budding Read would be chased out of the artworld today because of their ultimate concern with the experiential effects of art on lives. That Read presents such a contrasting view of art, and one that challenges 21st century artworld dogmas, is true but the context is wider. The last section of Meaning argues that the artist’s work exemplifies “will-to-form”; it is this aesthetic activity that is ultimately Read’s concern and adds a political dimension to his philosophy. For Read sees in that the necessity of adhering to an ‘unpolitics’, as he sometimes called his anarchism.
Read did not just champion ‘modern art’ and artists but argued via them for conditions in which art, all creative work, flourishes. Read’s “personal confession of faith” – Poetry and Anarchism (1938) – expressed his conviction that the world (art and beyond) needs “no programme”: that individuals and works are formed by their aesthetic activities, which then create the realisation and enjoyment of “the anarchy of life”.
The integrity of Read’s art criticism, history and philosophy, together with his politics and views on education, were recognised by Adrian Stokes and J.P. Hodin in the July 1964 issue of the British Journal of Aesthetics, both celebrating Read’s 70th birthday (Read was then the British Society of Aesthetics’ first President). So while noting Read’s historic support for ‘art now’ (Moore, Nicholson, Hepworth) Stokes also thought Read argued a “novel case for art as a necessity for human beings”. He saw how aesthetic activity for Read is not simply ‘heightened’ work but the “prime base for any degree of culture”. Stokes noted then affinities with the philosophy of John Ruskin but regarded Read’s as “broader” in making the philosophy of aesthetics that of ‘creativeness’. Hodin noted Read’s catholicity of interests and many activities, seeing them as potentially a source of difficulty in assessing Read’s philosophy and its significance. He observed a “richness of aesthetic feeling over any scientific training” that was reflected in Read’s aesthetics and advocacy of sensuous appreciation as prior to any intellectual activity. Still, Hodin understood that Read argued for a kind of primary aesthetic apprehension of reality and that this was a powerful idea of the aesthetic. Hodin quotes Read: “In the end Art should so dominate our lives that we might say: ‘There are no longer works of art but Art only. For art is then the way of life’”. Norman Potter, designer and fellow anarchist, quoted in a 1998 reassessment of Read edited by David Goodway, also defended him against criticism of being ‘diffuse and evasive’, unscientific, by focusing on Read’s aesthetic philosophy of life and his ‘real courage’ in arguing its political dimension, for example in public meetings defending the Freedom Group in the 1940s.
This 50th anniversary of Read’s death is an opportunity to think about his ‘aesthetic philosophy’ and the focus it might give philosophical aesthetics now. Read used a Williams Morris anniversary similarly. Writing in The Observer on the 100th anniversary (1934) of William Morris’s birth, Herbert Read noted how Morris was typically regarded as variously and discretely poet, designer, and socialist-anarchist but all could be integrated around an idea of the aesthetic. Indeed Read and Morris share a conception of aesthetic interest as essentially related to work: in essence, the joy in making things and “a conception of life as an aesthetic whole” that Read rightly saw in Morris’s work and philosophy.
George Woodcock’s 1972 intellectual biography of Read casts his aesthetic philosophy as art criticism bridged to politics and aesthetic education. That’s broadly true and perhaps best illustrated by Read’s ‘Art and the Development of the Individual’ in The Form of Things Unknown (1960). The essay identifies ‘art’ with Individual creativity; and the development of both individuals and society with creative work. Read argues that the idea of development “must not be understood as implying any ethical notions of progress” but as ‘progressive adaptation’, about keeping a vitality in our relationships with the environment. Art plays its essential role as the most effective means of human communication. Myth, ritual, poetry, drama, painting, and sculpture are not just “grist for the analytical mill” but the way “mankind has kept itself mentally alert and therefore biologically vital”. Read goes on to consider therefore art education in the context of both individual ability (specifically with reference to J. Field’s On Not Being Able To Paint) and general alienating conditions of work. Read concludes with a vision of “a society in which everyone was an artist of some sort” and one thus “necessarily united in concrete creative enterprises”.
These themes are pursued in Art Now (1933), The Grass Roots of Art (1947), through to The Redemption of the Robot (1969). Central to Art Now is the argument that “all of us are without freedom if we don’t follow the artistic lead” (set by artists like Henry Moore, who are the particular focus of the book). And Read thinks this is a revolutionary position without being political in the conventional sense, working as it does on the plane of human spirit and imagination. In Grass Roots, art is seen as a ‘social bond’ “so long as it is aesthetic”. Read’s meaning of ‘aesthetic’ refers to communicating by means and rules to which our senses respond. He thus calls non-aesthetic art “masochistic” because it denies the pleasure of a basic “formative activity”. Contemplating a world of automation, in Redemption Read asks “What remains for man? Man must become an artist and fill his new-found leisure with creative activity”.
Read’s Anarchy and Order (1954) is subtitled ‘essays in politics’ but even here Read stresses that there is no categorical separation between this “Anarchism” and the philosophy that appears in his literary criticism, poetry, and his writing on art more generally. He reflects candidly too on the seeming absurdity of saying one is an anarchist; but he is committed to the idea of aesthetic experience as an experience of “organic freedom”. For Read, this idea of freedom, the idea of “daring to create authentically”, meant necessarily rejecting attempts at the rational organisation of society. It informed Read’s rejection of Russian communism and his anarchism and also allied him to French existentialism. The seeming paradox of anarchical order – its ‘absurdity’ one might say – is resolved as experiential anarchy and aesthetic order, akin to existentialist ‘choice’ but with an added aesthetic ‘will-to-form’. For Read anarchism meant “a new social order” providing personal freedom and “opportunities for creative activities”.
Read’s anarchism led him to questions about aesthetic education, to the ‘”lost notion of cultivating senses – sensibility”. This education is not, for Read, properly, separated from considerations of work generally. So it goes far beyond education in the fine arts, the type of aesthetic education in any case Read thought guilty of failing to deliver sensibility to its students (as he notes in Art and Society (1937) for example). The idea of ‘sensibility’ is linked to creative work, extending beyond sensibility in artistic making and appreciation. The general aims of aesthetic education, properly speaking, relate to work showing an aesthetic interest in form and function of whatever the maker produces; it shifts its focus to educating makers of things, rather than educating taste in appreciating artworks. In Redemption, Read also thinks this especially important if automation isn’t to leave us bored with life.
By this route, aesthetics, for Read, broadens to a general philosophy of human development. This educational focus is similar to that of John Dewey who was concerned that philosophical enquiry should centre on experiences that encourage and build sensibility, are both agreeable and individually and socially valuable.
Read’s ‘aesthetic philosophy’ suggests a broad scope and set of aims for philosophical aesthetics. If philosophical aesthetics since Read’s heyday has broadened its subject range (most obviously with its interest in ‘everyday aesthetics’) and intellectual depth (drawing still more, where needed, on other disciplines), still Read might wonder if this is properly, as he’d argue, in the developmental service of an aesthetic philosophy of life. It is perhaps that which marks out Read’s potential continued significance as a philosopher. In the poem Moon’s Farm (1951) Read reflected on his philosophy and was content with its “natural outlook”. But he rejects materialism for a kind of experiential, existential philosophy based on the probity of aesthetic experiences. Read’s aesthetic philosophy, work-centred and developmental, though often drawing on other disciplines too, isn’t reducible to a scientific or ethical aesthetics. Rather it seems more in the founding tradition of aesthetics established by Baumgarten and clearly owes much too to Schiller’s ideas about a distinctive kind of human work and its aesthetic ‘play’.
Read is also a notable figure representing a broadly social and developmental tradition in British philosophical aesthetics that held some sway particularly between roughly 1850 and 1950. It started with reactions to industrialisation and particularly the state of industrial design at the 1851 Great Exhibition; its key text was Ruskin’s Stones of Venice (1853) chapter on the nature of the Gothic worker. Its practical and theoretic high and end points were the 1951 Festival of Britain and included Read’s Education Through Art (1943). Yet the kinds of economic and social conditions that prompted this tradition in philosophical aesthetics remain real, indeed with the increased intensity of a data-driven and un-aesthetic world. Read’s aesthetic philosophy made him ask questions like “is there a possibility of guiding our machine civilization by putting things first and their proper aesthetic making?” He wondered whether “in a world shrinking under a network of high-speed communication” an epoch without art was dawning. Read offers then an everyday ‘political’ vitality and relevance to philosophical aesthetics in directing enquiry to our aesthetic lives, into the very conditions of humanity.
(With thanks to Terry Diffey for introducing me to the portrait by Topolski in the October 1965 edition of the British Journal of Aesthetics and to other references to Read in the journal’s early years)