<<

. 10
( 82 .)



>>

serve practical or instrumental purposes, including political and religious pur-
poses. Much art has been produced to reinforce national and cultural identities, to
bolster the ethos of the group, to encourage pride and commitment, to celebrate
or memorialize important occasions, to enlist support, to mourn, to commemo-
rate, and the like. Statistically, formalism fails dismally to reconstruct the concept
of art as we typically employ it.Thus, those dissatisfied with formalism because it
is apolitical can add to their budget of complaints that it also fails to be a compre-
hensive theory of art empirically.
Nor does it make much sense for the formalist to allege that patriotic
responses to artworks designed to elicit nationalism are somehow inappropriate, if
that is the aim of the genre to which the work in question belongs. Rather, patri-
otism seems to be precisely the appropriate response to such artworks.And, in any
case, formalism proposes a questionable account of artistic attention “ insofar as
formalism suggests that representional content is strictly irrevelant for appreciating
artworks qua artworks “ for the simple reason that tracking representational con-
tent is frequently an ineliminable precondition for discovering formal relations.
You won™t grasp the formal organization of Brueghal™s The Fall of Icarus unless you
also contemplate the story.
Likewise the structure of many novels (including the Harry Potter series) is
practically impossible to discern if one does not access one™s cognitive and emo-
46 BEYOND AESTHETICS

tive stock about the real world.Though literary comprehension, including the dis-
covery of structure, involves many other things, it typically requires the mobiliza-
tion of cognitive and emotive scripts and schemas drawn from everyday life and
applied in a comparable manner to characters and situations. It is hard to imagine,
for instance, how ordinary readers would detect structures of dramatic conflict
otherwise.
Of course, formalism is not the only aesthetic theory of art. And a more
generic statement of the theory can remedy some of formalism™s shortcomings.
For example, if we say that something is an artwork if and only if it is intended to
afford aesthetic experience and we do not stipulate that the object of aesthetic
experience is artistic form, many of the previous objections to formalism fall by
the wayside, since contemplating the representational content of artworks, includ-
ing its political content, can count, on the generic aesthetic theory, as aesthetic
experience, so long as the experience is valued for its own sake.Whereas dwelling
on the moral observations in a novel by Henry James does not count as aesthetic
experience for the formalist, a proponent of what I™m calling the generic aesthetic
theory will accept it as such, so long as the reader finds the experience intrinsically
valuable. Nor on the generic view is there any problem with finding the repre-
sentational content of the artwork relevant in any way, so long as it subserves the
cultivation of an experience that is valued for its own sake.
Though the generic aesthetic theory escapes some of the troubles of formal-
ism, as a comprehensive theory of art, it is nevertheless inadequate. It is too exclu-
sive. There are works of art that are not intended to afford the relevant kinds of
aesthetic experiences. Many cultures, for example, produce demon figures that are
intended to drive off intruders by means of their terrifying visages. It is implausi-
ble to imagine that these figures were designed to be contemplated for their own
sake. Such responses would contradict the very purpose these artifacts subserve.
But nevertheless we count figures and masks such as these as artworks.
So far I haven™t said much about aesthetic experience. I™ve concentrated on the-
ories of art that mobilize aesthetic experience as the central element in their defini-
tions of art. I™ve done this because of my suspicion that much of the prevailing
skepticism about aesthetic experience is connected to people™s dismissal of the the-
ories of art, like formalism, in which the notion of aesthetic experience plays a cru-
cial role. However, it is of the utmost importance to emphasize that the notion of
aesthetic experience can be detached or decoupled from formalism and aesthetic
theories of art. That those theories fail as comprehensive theories of art does not
entail that there is something wrong with the notion of aesthetic experience in its
own right “ that is, apart from its putative role in defining art.Aesthetic experience
may not “ indeed, I claim that it does not “ define art; nevertheless, there is still
something that we refer to by means of the concept of aesthetic experience.
The traditional characterization of aesthetic experience identifies it as an
experience necessarily valued for its own sake.With respect to artworks, my expe-
rience is aesthetic when, guided and directed by the artwork, said experience is
intrinsically valued by me. If you ask the rich man why he attended the concert
FOUR CONCEPTS AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE 47
OF


and he indicates he did it in order to show the world he is a philanthropist, his
experience of the music is not aesthetic. If you ask his impoverished aunt why she
attended and she says that she went in order to have an intrinsically valuable expe-
rience of the music, hers is an aesthetic experience. For her, the having the expe-
rience is its own reward; she did not seek it out for some ulterior purpose.
But what is it to have an intrinsically valuable experience of the music? Is it
that certain experiences just are intrinsically valuable, irrespective of the agent™s
beliefs about them, or is what makes an experience intrinsically valuable a person™s
beliefs about it, namely, that she believes it valuable for its own sake, and not for
the sake of something else? Let us call the first of these options the objective con-
ception of intrinsic value, and the second the subjective conception.
The objective conception of intrinsic value hardly seems promising. How can
we tell which experiences are valuable for their own sake? Aesthetic experiences
are said to be valuable for their own sake.They involve things like recognizing pat-
terns and structures, on the one hand, and detecting expressive properties, on the
other hand. But it is plausible to hypothesize that these activities have, unbe-
knownst to us, some subtle, adaptive value and are, therefore, instrumentally valu-
able from an evolutionary point of view.
Aesthetic experiences of form may exercise and enhance our capacities for
recognizing regularities in the environment, while the detection of expressive
properties in artworks may nurture and contribute to our ability to scope out the
emotional states of our conspecifics “ a clearly advantageous capability for social
beings like us.
Of course, I don™t know for sure whether aesthetic experiences are instrumen-
tally valuable in these ways, though the idea that the seemingly nearly universal
capacity for having them provides no benefit whatsoever to the organism is hard
to square with a scientific worldview. But, in any event, the bottom line is that no
one really knows enough psychology to be sure whether aesthetic experiences are
instrumentally or instrinsically valuable irrespective of what the agents undergo-
ing the experience believe about them. For all we know, aesthetic experiences
might be instrumentally valuable, especially adaptively, without the agents™ being
aware of that value.2
At this point in the debate, it is open to the friend of the traditional account of
aesthetic experience to opt for the subjective interpretation of valuation for its
own sake. On this construal, when we say that an experience is valued for its own
sake, we have in mind that what explains the agent™s participation in the experi-
ence is that he or she believes that it is valuable intrinsically.That is, the belief that
the experience is valuable for its own sake is the internal mechanism that moti-
vates the agent to engage in certain behaviors, like attending the theater.
Ask the theatergoer why she is spending her time that way. Is it to make
money or impress her friends? No. Is it to show solidarity with the oppressed? No.
It is, she says, because having the experience itself “ perhaps she calls it a pleasur-
able experience “ is valuable in and of its own right. She goes to the theater in
order to undergo such an experience “ in anticipation that it would be pleasur-
48 BEYOND AESTHETICS

able, or moving, or interesting just to have that kind of evening.We buy a choco-
late bar because we believe the taste of it, irrespective of its practical, nutritional
value (if any), is a satisfying experience on its own terms. Similarly, we seek out
certain artworks given our belief or expectation that they will afford experiences
that will be satisfying on their own terms.This belief is what in large part causes
or motivates our commerce with many artworks, and when it is borne out, under
the guidance of the artwork, our experience is said to be an aesthetic experience.
One thing to notice about the subjective version of the traditional account of
aesthetic experience is that it identifies aesthetic experiences not in terms of
internal features of the state, but in terms of the causal conditions that abet the
state, namely, the agent™s belief that the experience is intrinsically valuable.That is,
this characterization of aesthetic experience says little about the content of the
experience, but instead isolates aesthetic experiences in terms of whether they are
caused and sustained by the right sort of beliefs.Yet this seems to me to guarantee
that the traditional account of aesthetic experience is mistaken.
The traditional account presumes that a necessary condition for aesthetic
experience is the belief that the experience is valuable for its own sake. But this is
false. Let us agree with the formalist at least this far: that appreciation of the form
of an artwork is one kind of aesthetic experience. Now let™s also imagine two rea-
sonably informed artgoers: Oscar, who believes experiencing artworks is valuable
for their own sake, and Charles, an evolutionary psychologist, who believes expe-
riencing artworks is valuable for honing one™s cognitive and perceptual abilities.
Oscar and Charles listen to the same piece of music, attending to the same
musical structures “ both track the same repeating motifs and note how cleverly
they are interwoven. Both find the work unified, in the same way, and both are
moved by its expressive qualities. Both run the exactly same computations rele-
vant to processing the formal features of the work. Pretheoretically, I think that we
are disposed to say both of them had aesthetic experiences. After all, the content
of their experience is exactly the same; their computational states are type-identi-
cal. If we had a science-fiction device, call it a cerebroscope, that enabled us to get
inside their experiences, we would detect no differences in kind between their
mental activities.
Nevertheless, the traditional account seems driven to the counterintuitive
conclusion that, despite the sameness in content of their mental states, Oscar is
having an aesthetic experience, but Charles is not, since Charles believes his state
is instrumentally valuable “ that it improves his cognitive and perceptual abilities “
whereas Oscar thinks the experience is valuable for its own sake. But this scarcely
seems to mark a categorical difference, if we grant that both Oscar and Charles are
attending to the same things, in the same ways “ ways, moreover, that are appro-
priate, given the nature of the music in question.
Furthermore, imagine that Charles™ theories, whether or not they are true,
become so popular among educators worldwide that at some date in the distant
future, everyone is taught and comes to believe that attending to artworks in the
way that Oscar and Charles do is instrumentally valuable for the reasons Charles
FOUR CONCEPTS AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE 49
OF


says they are.That is, everyone avidly consumes artworks because they believe that
the activity improves their cognitive and perceptual abilities. In such a world, the
traditional account would be forced to conclude that there is no longer any aes-
thetic experience, despite the fact that it might be the case that more people could
be consuming more art with more acuity and perceptiveness than ever before.
Of course, the friend of the traditional account may claim that though people
like Charles say explicitly that they believe that experiencing artworks improves
them and that this is why they do it, deep down what they really believe is that
such experiences are valuable for their own sake.The proof of this might be that
if their beliefs in the self-improvement value of art were proven to be false, they
would continue to seek out artworks. Why? Because, ex hypothesi, they subcon-
sciously find the experiences intrinsically valuable. But insofar as this prediction
assumes, overconfidently in my opinion, that were these people truly to believe
that art affords no opportunities for improvement, they would continue to con-
sume it, the traditional account of aesthetic experience still seems to me to rest on
a highly shaky conjecture. For people like Charles might go Gragrind were their
beliefs in the improving value of art undermined “ after all, others have “ and, fur-
thermore, this behavior would not in any way alter the fact that in their pre-Gra-
grind days, they were still having aesthetic experiences despite the fact that they
believed them to be instrumentally valuable.
In short, the traditional account requires for an experience to be aesthetic that
the agent believe or find the experience to be valuable for its own sake. But surely
an agent can appreciate the form or expressiveness of an artwork while regarding
these experiences as instrumentally valuable in some manner. That is, from the
viewpoint of artistic appreciation, the mental processing activities and attendant
qualities of Oscar™s experience and Charles™ experience can be the same in every
way. It seems arbitrary to say that one is having an aesthetic experience and the
other not. But if valuation for its own sake is not a necessary condition of aesthetic
experience, then that scotches the traditional account.

T H E P R AG M AT I C AC C O U N T

I™ve called the next account “the pragmatic account” because its leading advocate
was John Dewey. It might just as easily be called the structural account, since it
characterizes aesthetic experience in terms of its putative internal structure or
rhythm. The pragmatic account contrasts nicely with the traditional account.
Whereas the traditional account attempts to define aesthetic experience in terms
of the agent™s beliefs about that experience, the pragmatic account focuses
squarely on the content of the relevant experience and tries to generalize about its
recurring internal features.
Unlike many theories of aesthetic experience, Dewey™s does not propose a dis-
tinction between aesthetic experience and other kinds of experience. For Dewey,
aesthetic experience exemplifies the fundamental structure of anything that we
would be willing to call “an experience” as that phrase is used in expressions like
50 BEYOND AESTHETICS

“now that was an experience.” Dewey does not think that aesthetic experiences are
uniquely correlated to artworks, but rather that aesthetic experiences of artworks can
be used by us as instructive guides for fashioning everyday experiences and our lives.
Aesthetic experiences can function in this way because, according to Dewey, they
represent in a more realized manner the structure toward which all potentially vivid
experiences naturally gravitate. Or, putting the point in a different way, for Dewey
anything we are disposed to call an experience in ordinary language always already
has a latent aesthetic character that we can learn to bring into the foreground
through cultivating the aesthetic experiences available to us via artworks.
Commenting on the aesthetic nature of experience, Dewey says:
we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to
fulfillment.Then and only then is it integrated within and demarcated in
the general stream of experience from other experiences. A piece of work
is finished in a way that is satisfactory; a problem receives its solution; a
game is played through; a situation, whether that of eating a meal, playing
a game of chess, carrying on a conversation, writing a book, or taking part
in a political campaign, is so rounded out that its close is a consummation
and not a cessation. Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its
own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience.3
Dewey says of such an experience that “it is a thing of histories, each with its
own plot, its own inception and movement toward its close”;4 and that “in such
experiences, every successive part flows freely without seams and without unfilled
blanks, into what ensues.At the same time there is no sacrifice of the self-identity
of the parts.”5 For “in an experience, flow is from something to something.As one
part leads to another and as one part carries on what went before, each gains dis-
tinctness in itself.The enduring whole is diversified by successive phases that are
emphases of its varied colors.”6 And lastly, such an experience has a unity that is
“constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the
variation of its constituent parts.”7
Dewey™s phenomenological description of aesthetic experience here and else-
where sounds like an abstract scenario. Moments flow into moments under the
selective guidance of a single quality until they reach closure or, as he says, are con-
summated. Moments are integrated, like a plot, and the congruence of the inter-
phasing moments make the experience stand out against backgrounds of either
nondescript monotony or bustling confusion. Some experiences are like this, espe-
cially some aesthetic experiences of artworks. The issue is whether this structural
account of some aesthetic experiences can be generalized across the board.
Dewey is a slippery writer. One cannot always be sure what he is saying or
whether he is always saying the same thing. However, he does seem committed to
the idea that an aesthetic experience must have a temporal dimension; it evolves
over time; it has duration. Moreover, structurally, it has closure; it doesn™t just end.
This gives the experience unity, as does the fact that it possesses some distinctive
quality in contrast to the often bland experiences of ordinary life. Since this does
FOUR CONCEPTS AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE 51
OF


not differentiate the aesthetic experience of art from many other sorts of experi-
ence, these criteria “ duration, qualitative unity, and temporal integration and clo-
sure “ don™t, as Dewey would probably be the first to admit, supply sufficient
conditions for identifying the relevant experiences, but they do appear to be nec-
essary conditions for him.
And yet obviously they are too restrictive. Not all aesthetic experiences of art-
works extend over any appreciable duration. Some paintings just overwhelm you in
one shot. Pow! Some Rothkos are like this.Their sublimity envelops you all at once.
Of course, many paintings are designed so that their parts will be taken in and imag-
inatively reconstructed over time. But that is not enough to support Dewey™s gener-
alizations, because many other paintings “ say minimalist paintings bereft of parts “
are composed to elicit immediate rather than durative experiences. Nevertheless, we
still regard experiences of those kinds of paintings as aesthetic, though they do not

<<

. 10
( 82 .)



>>