The safest and most informative way of distinguishing aesthetic objects from other perceptual objects would not be by their causes or effects or relations to people, but by their own characteristics. This is, after all, the way we distinguish cows from horses, men from women, and bread from stones--in terms of shape and substance. Such a definition of "aesthetic object" would be an objective definition. [op. cit. p. 63]Isn't it lovely to read something clearly written? So how do we do this? The most direct would be to select a set of characteristics that all aesthetic objects possess, but are not all present in other kinds of objects. This however, would be at the conclusion of a rather extensive enquiry and at this point in Beardsley's argument he wants something less ambitious: a type of definition that will mark out an area for examination without presuming too much about it. We can certainly distinguish perceptual objects by their sensory fields: some are seen, some are heard. Within the auditory field, we will need to distinguish between an opera and the sound of a foundry, between a piano sonata and birdsong. Not all these dividing lines will be clear ones. John Cage went out of his way to confound the exercise by writing his 4'33 in which it is not possible to distinguish the piece from the ambient sounds of the environment. However, despite the occasional difficulty of that sort, it is generally possible to group together musical compositions, visual designs, literary works and so on under the general term "aesthetic objects."
We can, therefore, distinguish aesthetic objects from other kinds of perceptual objects and following that, distinguish statements about aesthetic objects from ones about other perceptual objects. Some of the statements about aesthetic objects are statements about the causes and effects of them and Beardsley calls these "external statements." The others are statements about the aesthetic object itself: its blueness, its "meaning," its beauty and so on. These are "internal statements." We can now define critical statements as internal statements about an aesthetic object. [op. cit. p. 64] Wasn't that neatly done!
Statements about the writer's unconscious, or the influences of one painter upon another, or the social conditions that were improved by a novel, are statements that belong to the history, or sociology, of art. There are, of course, problems involved in verifying them; but these problems are not peculiar to aesthetic objects, and they belong to the methodology of history and the social sciences, not to aesthetics. But statements about the characteristics of aesthetic objects, statements describing, interpreting, or evaluating them, do raise special problems that are peculiarly the domain of aesthetics. [op. cit. p. 64-5]I can't find much wrong with this approach. What it tells us is that virtually all discussion of the arts these days is peripheral to the artwork itself. Nearly all of it is about the externals, the intentions of the composer, the social message, the class/gender/racist content and so on. But this is usually "read into" the work, not actually present in the work. The one quibble I have with the last quoted paragraph is when he says that "the influences of one painter upon another" are external. I'm not so sure of that. We can estimate or evaluate this only by studying the work itself. After all, if so-and-so says that Bob was a huge influence or no influence at all, the first thing we would want to do is look at the work of Bob and compare it to so-and-so to see what influence there was. And that is looking at internals, not externals.
What is really weird here, to my mind, is how casually the whole field of actual aesthetics, as opposed to the pseudo-aesthetics going by that name these days, was tossed aside with scarcely a qualm. And how hardly anyone is noticing how really impoverished discussion is these days with all its delving into irrelevancies and externals. Honestly, the supposed "intentions" of the composer are hardly more relevant to what we actually hear in the concert hall than what kind of hat he wore when he was composing!
The first edition of Beardsley's book was published in 1958 and the revised and updated second edition that I have, in 1981. Yes, there are still pockets of rational thinking here and there, even in aesthetics. One is the Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, ed. by Peter Kivy (who is quite a good writer on music), published in 2004, but the general trend is away from objective knowledge and towards politically motivated ideology. Analytical philosophy and traditional musicology are still holdouts, though besieged. I still shake my head at the feebleness of the arguments, no, not even arguments, just baseless claims, against aesthetics and in favor of, what, virtue-signalling and narcissistic whining?
Let's clear the palate with a nice aesthetic object. This is a little collection of musical aesthetic objects in the form of a mini-concert by Hilary Hahn given for NPR's "tiny desk" series. It is as if Hilary dropped by and played a few tunes over at your place. The first piece is the Gigue, not the Bourrée (which was also misspelled) from the E major Violin Partita by Bach. The second piece is indeed the Siciliano (as Bach spelled it) from the Violin Sonata No. 1, but Hilary plays a spurious F# in measure 9 that was added by a 19th century editor. I know this because the finest musician I have known personally and performed with, Paul Kling, called me up one day and said in his delightful Czech accent: "what are you doing?" I replied that I was playing through the Siciliano from the first violin sonata and he instantly said, "are you playing an F# in measure 9 or an F natural?" I had to go look as I was reading through a transcription in a different key, but I came back and said, "an F#." Paul replied, "that was added in the 19th century, Bach didn't write it." You should be aware that the original manuscripts by Bach and by his wife Anna Magdalena, who did a lot of copying for him, are very clear and virtually free of any errors. If there ain't an F# there, he didn't want it. This didn't prevent later editors from "fixing" what they saw as errors. One editor actually added an entire measure in the middle of the first prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier because he couldn't handle Bach's radical harmonic progression. But I'm a bit surprised that Hilary doesn't know about this editorial addition... Never mind that! Hilary Hahn is an absolutely lovely player.