Book ReviewsNo. 98

Daniel Albright. 2014. Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Abstract

A ticklish question runs through Daniel Albright’s Panaesthetics: what, or which, or whose Pan? The Greek god Pan is promiscuous, seductively musical, all–encompassing and self–fissioning; the camera pan shifts our gaze to refocus on new visual fields or subjects; pan– prefixes relatedly imply some fusion or bringing–together of various elements (pan–American— pansexual—pandemonium). To which Albright might answer: all of them, and none of them too. This maddening brand of dialectical thinking is a hallmark of Panaesthetics, which begins with grandiose statements about what art is but often gets sidestepped with some eccentric examples drawn from the fringes of the canon, tripped up trying to make use of its own clunky vocabulary and ends seemingly confused about its own status as art theory or art appreciation.

Much of Daniel Albright’s work has been in the field of “comparative arts”—a broader, significantly newer off–branch from Comparative Literature, the department many aspiring students of letters come to after realizing they can no longer “just study English” at most advanced learning institutions. Following this, perhaps Comparative Arts may too replace close study of the individual arts entirely; a welcome development for Albright, who has consistently and often quite compellingly shown the interpretive advantage of unbinding artworks from their original mediums. His earlier Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts (Albright 2000) and more recent Music Speaks (Albright 2009) cover similar inter–arts territory, which is here significantly extended towards a broader history of the “unity and diversity” of the arts, from the crudely beautiful Lascaux paintings through to the crude beauty of Modernism and onwards. Along the way Albright’s theory of comparative arts inevitably becomes one of comparative aesthetics too, panning across the work of Adorno, Heidegger and Greenberg back to Plato, the West’s first aesthetic theorist. A latent question binds this broad excursus across theory and praxis (that is, from cavemen to de Man): are the arts many, or are they one?

Albright approaches an answer with the compelling suggestion that art’s transmedial impulses are born of our own transmedial biases. Since any description of art must be mediated through the art of language, for instance, it is possible through language (description, theory, ekphrasis) to join unlike arts across their various mediums. The synaesthetic feel of a given artwork is both a property of art and a property of perception. Albright’s prose style consistently embodies this point: that all art (including its criticism) is bound to dream it were other arts, and thereby confuse mediums and sense modalities alike. “Every medium is the wrong medium,” writes Albright (2014, 277), but the dizzying, slippery realm of synaesthetic analyses can be baffling: when he discusses the ontology of painting under such self–evidently inexplicable headings as The Speech of Light and The Speech of Touch, it is clear we are dealing with intricate metaphorical constructions at a rather profound level.