Oakeshott on Aesthetic Experience

Excerpts from Corey Abel’s essay on aesthetics

Commentators agree that “The Voice of Poetry” is important but disagree on whether Oakeshott wrote a theory of aesthetics. Most think “The Voice of Poetry” establishes poetry’s distinction from practice, as it does, forcefully. But in his remarks on childhood, friendship, and love, Oakeshott seems to rejoin poetry and practice. He also seems, in On Human Conduct, to rejoin poetry and practice in claiming that a religion’s dignity resides, in part, in the “poetic quality” of its images.

Aesthetic theories often seek criteria for good art. The tendency is to blend empirical description, psychological observation, and ethical counseling. But Oakeshott never tried to tell scientists or historians how to proceed. In aesthetics he is not trying to dictate norms, analyze the participants’ psychology, or describe the appearances but—as elsewhere—indicate the postulates of the experience.

Reviewing a Rothko exhibition, Simon Schama relates Rothko’s work to his struggles as a Russian Jew (“a scar on his nose . . . put there by a Cossack whip”); highlights his “melancholic temperament”; discovers his social context (“never really an American painter”); claims that Rothko would “bite your head off” if you took a formalist approach to his work; and observes his emotions (“he felt European calamity viscerally”). Apparently, to understand artists we must consult their feelings, their beliefs about aesthetics, their biography, and their political context. The paintings are mere vessels for psychosocial and historical messages.

Since poetry is not about anything, titles are “never of any significance.” It is not that titles are per se invalid, only titles that purport to tell us poems are statement-making utterances. Similarly, “the table of contents of a book of musical compositions often (and not inappropriately) consists of the opening bars of the compositions themselves” (RP, 526). Different arts may vary in the degree of aesthetic security of their images: “A musical image is more secure than a pictorial image” (518). Oakeshott’s theory makes this clear since music is neither making statements about nor depicting the world.