<<

. 7
( 82 .)



>>

Beauty is an experience that is a function of the form “ the compound ratio of
uniformity and variety “ in the object of our attention. Furthermore, that the
experience is brought about in the percipient, without any knowledge of the pre-
cise mechanism that causes it, fits nicely with Hutcheson™s opinion that the expe-
rience is universally available.That is, despite the strain that this would appear to
put on some of his examples, banishing knowledge from the experience of beauty
appears to support the view that the experience of beauty is available cross-cul-
turally (insofar as the variability of knowledge between cultures is discounted as
relevant to the experience).
Kant is the next stage in our survey of the evolution of art theory. His is an
immensely complicated theory. I will not attempt to characterize its richness, but
only to make some points about his view of what is called free, as distinct from
dependent, beauty. I will talk about free beauty, even though it seems that art as we
know it is generally more a matter of dependent beauty, first, because I think that
his account of free beauty has had more influence on the tradition than his
account of dependent beauty, and second, because his account of dependent
beauty is in some ways inconclusive and ambiguous (which is, perhaps, why it has
been less influential on the tradition).
Before delving into the substance of Kant™s position, it pays to note one signif-
icant divergence in vocabulary between Kant and Hutcheson. Whereas Hutche-
son speaks of taste and beauty, Kant adds to this terminology the notion of
aesthetics, a terrain of judgment concerned to a large extent with beauty (along
with the sublime).This term, of course, was introduced by Baumgarten to demar-
cate the realm of perception in general, and, in Kant™s third critique, it is used as a
label for judgments of taste in general.This change in terminology I think may be
significant to our story because in referring to beauty by means of the concept of
the aesthetic, one may come to think that the two are distinguishable when one is
really only talking about beauty, narrowly construed, rather than something more
encompassing.Thus, when J. O. Urmson tells us what makes a situation aesthetic,
his criteria primarily targets forms and appearance that favorably address the
senses “ in other words, beauty as Hutcheson conceives it (although to be fair,
BEAUTY GENEALOGY ART THEORY 29
AND THE OF


Urmson™s use of aesthetic is also a bit broader, since it also includes negative appre-
ciative judgments in terms of ugliness).14
With respect to beauty, Kant™s focus in the Critique of Judgment is on aesthetic
judgments such as “x is beautiful.” In terms of such judgments of free beauty, Kant
wants to explain how these judgments can be universal and necessary “ com-
manding the assent of all “ despite the fact that they are based on no more than
the particular sensation of pleasure that we, responding as a single individual to a
subjective state, feel in response to an object. Summarizing drastically, Kant™s view,
with regard to free beauty, is roughly that “x is beautiful” is an authentic judgment
of taste (or an aesthetic judgment) if and only if it is a judgment that is: (1) sub-
jective,15 (2) disinterested, (3) universal,16 (4) necessary,17 and (5) singular,18 con-
cerning (6) the contemplative pleasure that everyone ought to derive from (7)
cognitive and imaginative free play in relation to (8) forms of finality.19
In terms of our narrative, the important elements in this account are that aes-
thetic judgments are disinterested and contemplative, that they are rooted in cog-
nitive and imaginative free play, and that they are directed at forms of finality.
Kant unpacks the notion of disinterestedness by means of the apparently radi-
cal idea of indifference to the existence of the object. He writes:
Now, where the question is whether something is beautiful, we do not
want to know whether we, or anyone else, are, or even could be concerned
in the real existence of the thing, but rather what estimate we form of it on
mere contemplation (intuition or reflection). ¦ All one wants to know is
whether the mere representation of the object is to my liking, no matter
how indifferent I may be to the real existence of the object of this repre-
sentation. It is quite plain that in order to say that the object is beautiful,
and to show that I have taste, everything turns on the meaning which I can
give the representation, and not on any factor which makes me dependent
on the real existence of the object. Every one must allow that a judgment
on the beautiful which is tinged with the slightest interest, is very partial
and not a pure judgment of taste. One must not be in the least prepos-
sessed in favour of the real existence of the thing, but must preserve com-
plete indifference in this respect, in order to play the part of judge in
matters of taste.20
Here, as in Hutcheson (and possibly in response to Hume™s failure to distin-
guish pleasure in the moral from pleasure in the beautiful), we find disinterested-
ness being used as a test of whether the response concerns the beauty of
something.The idea seems to be that such a response, if authentically aesthetic, is
a matter of pleasure in reaction to the appearance of a thing. Whether the thing
exists, then, is irrelevant to its beauty. Our feeling of the magnificence of a divinely
appointed palace would be no less one of beauty were the palace an hallucination.
The notion of indifference to the existence of the object seems to be a way to get
at the idea that beauty, narrowly construed, is pleasure taken in the appearance or
configuration of the object.
30 BEYOND AESTHETICS

Kant also makes the point that our judgments of beauty will be tainted if
guided by our practical interests in the object “ interests we can only plausibly
sustain if we take the object to exist. But, at the same time, the notion of exis-
tence-indifference is an attempt to locate the aesthetic response, the response to
beauty, as taking as its object the perceptual appearance and form of things.Thus,
the aesthetic response, on this account, is targeted at what might be thought of as,
first and foremost, the phenomenal properties of objects.Though perhaps not cor-
rect, this is at least a reasonable hypothesis to conjecture, if what one is interested
in is a conception of the phenomenon of beauty very narrowly construed.21
Whether it can be extrapolated, across the board, to the far more complicated
phenomenon of artworks in general, rather than to simply artworks marked by
beauty, is another question, one that will be forced upon us when we recall theo-
rists like Monroe Beardsley who attempt to classify all artworks within the broad
category of phenomenal fields.22
Kant™s view of free beauty is formal in a number of obvious and important
respects.The objects of aesthetic judgments are forms of finality.That is, the sense
of beauty is raised by a sense of the purposiveness or design of a configuration,
rather than through a comprehension of the purpose that the object might serve.
If one is genuinely struck by the beauty of the crenelations of the turrets of a
medieval castle, this will be a function of perceiving the orderliness, design, and, in
this sense, the purposiveness of the pattern, and not by a recognition of the prac-
tical purposes of fortification that the architectural structure serves. One, of
course, might appreciate the ingenuity and utility of the structure from a military
point of view; but such a judgment is not an aesthetic one.The aesthetic judgment
focuses on the configuration “ and the feeling of purposiveness and pattern it
affords “ without regard to the actual purpose or utility of the object. Here, the
notion of a form of finality does much of the work that the interaction of unifor-
mity and variety does in Hutcheson™s theory, and that significant form will do in
Bell™s argument.
In respect to our response to form, the application of our cognitive and imag-
inative capacities in the contemplative act is one of free play since tracking unfold-
ing designs and their interrelations is not governed by comprehending how the
design serves some practical purpose or utility.The play of our faculties of imagi-
nation and the understanding is harmonious because it is directed at forms of
finality that impart purposiveness, and that play is free because it is not subservient
to a consideration of practical concerns. The play of cognition and imagination
might also be thought of as free in the sense that the object of its attention is sin-
gular “ that is, not subsumable under a rule or concept “ as would be the case
with the object of a rational judgment.And the free and harmonious play of cog-
nition and imagination, independent of the claims of purpose, practicality, and
knowledge, gives rise to a special form of pleasure, aesthetic pleasure, pleasure in
the purposive rather than the purposeful configuration of the object of attention.
Again, even if it is not ultimately compelling, this type of formalism may appear at
least initially appealing if one wishes to analyze the type of pleasure encountered
BEAUTY GENEALOGY ART THEORY 31
AND THE OF


in tracing out the exfoliating design of a Persian rug, something which, though it
may be art, is hardly paradigmatic of art as we know it.
Though Kant and Hutcheson say a great deal about art, their theories are not
theories of art.They are theories of beauty “ and, in Kant™s case, of the sublime as
well.Their observations can be extended to beautiful art, to sublime art, and to the
role of what Kant calls aesthetic ideas in art. But they do not propose anything
remotely like definitions of art. Nevertheless “ and here the plot thickens “ many
of their claims, especially about beauty, become the basis of attempted definitions
of art, and this importation of the vocabulary and conceptual framework of
beauty theory, as developed by Hutcheson and Kant, into art theory has vast
repercussions, virtually initiating art theory as a branch of aesthetics (conceived of
as the philosophy of taste).
A crucial figure here is Clive Bell. Bell™s project is explicitly concerned with
the proposal of an essential definition of art. He regards the central problem of the
philosophy of art “ specifically of painting, but with ramifications for other media
as well “ to be to identify the common feature or set of features of the field™s
objects of study. He approaches this task with a predisposition to empiricism and
functionalism.That is, he searches for the answer to his problem by looking for a
certain invariant experiential or feeling state that always accompanies art (the
empiricist component23) as a way to isolate the invariant feature of artworks that
causes or functions to bring about the invariant responses that all and only art-
works educe (the functionalist component).As is well known, Bell calls our char-
acteristic experience of art aesthetic emotion and he regards significant form to be its
causal trigger.
In striking respects, Bell™s theory of art resembles Hutcheson™s theory of
beauty, with Kantian elements thrown in for added effect. Roughly, significant
form plays the role that uniformity amid variety plays for Hutcheson, while in
place of the feeling of beauty, Bell has the notion of having an aesthetic emotion.
The latter is an experience that Bell does little to specify, but, whenever he does,
it is in language that is unmistakably derivative from the kind of beauty theory we
have been discussing. For example:
¦to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no
knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions. Art
transports us from the world of man™s activity to a world of aesthetic exal-
tation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipa-
tions and memories are arrested; we are lifted above the stream of life.24
Bell repeatedly asserts that this rapturous emotion is independent of concerns of
practical utility,25 and cognitive import (see particularly his caustic remarks on the
Futurists).26 The aesthetic emotion is a state brought about in percipients as a
function of attention to significant form. Significant form pertains to the combi-
nation of lines, colors, shapes, and spaces. It is a matter of pure design that elicits a
response, that, like its object, significant form, contains no residue of ordinary
experience. In all likelihood, like Kant, Bell believes that one cannot antecedently
32 BEYOND AESTHETICS

supply rules for what forms will be the significant ones. Rather, the only test for
whether an object is an instance of significant form is that it engenders an aes-
thetic experience, a sense of rapture divorced from practical life and its interests,
or, in the language with which we are already familiar, a sense of rapture that is
disinterested.
Bell, himself, rejects labeling this emotion in terms of the feeling of beauty. He
maintains that the term “beauty” has too many misleading connotations in ordi-
nary language. However, it is quite clear that his conception of aesthetic emotion
is a derivative from the technical conception of beauty that we have seen devel-
oping in Hutcheson and Kant. Caused by the appearance of things and their
forms, the aesthetic emotion is nothing but the feeling of beauty in the technical
sense.And using the mark of beauty to isolate art is to commit oneself to the view
that art is a subspecies of beauty, technically construed.
Of course, Bell™s view is not exactly that of Hutcheson™s. Not only does Bell
attempt to reject beauty talk, he also refuses the idea that the experience in ques-
tion is quintessentially one of pleasure. Bell, again unlike Hutcheson, regards it to
be a function exclusively of art, and not of nature. Bell also parts company with
Hutcheson insofar as Hutcheson, in his account of relative beauty, believes, per-
haps inconsistently,27 that representation qua representation can sustain this disin-
terested sensation, whereas Bell is famous for claiming that representation is
altogether irrelevant to the aesthetic emotion.
However, what is more important is the way in which Bell appears to appro-
priate some of the leading concepts of aesthetic theory, or, as I prefer to call it.
beauty theory, to conceptualize art. Clearly, he is exploiting the tradition of beauty
theory that emphasizes the appearance of things, as well as exploiting the notion
of disinterestedness to flesh out this conception.This leads him to assert the irrel-
evance of a great many things in the appreciation of art. Artworks are not to be
appreciated for their practical utility, nor as sources of knowledge, whether moral,
political, social, or otherwise. For these things are irrelevant to having aesthetic
emotions, which are emotions, that, by definition, do not take such things as their
objects.The ideal spectator stays riveted to the surface of the art object; that is the
appropriate object of the emotion in question. Among other things, this is
thought to entail that considerations of art history and authorial intent are out of
bounds when one talks about genuine responses to art, since they are not part of
the appropriate object of the aesthetic emotion, which, in turn, is thought to iso-
late the art object.
In effect, Bell endorses what has come to be known as the genetic fallacy, of
which the intentional fallacy is the best known example. He writes:“To appreci-
ate a man™s art I need know nothing whatever about the artist; I can say whether
this picture is better than that without the help of history.”28 Furthermore, he
continues: “I care very little when things were made, or why they were made; I
care about their emotional significance to us,”29 where by “emotional signifi-
cance” he is, of course, speaking of aesthetic emotion, or what I would call disin-
terested rapture, that is, the sense of beauty.
BEAUTY GENEALOGY ART THEORY 33
AND THE OF


For Bell, the only relevant dimension of interaction with art qua art is sensibil-
ity, the conduit of aesthetic emotion. Art is that which engages this emotion by
means of significant form. Knowledge of art history, concern with authorial
intent, the practical consequences of the object, its contributions to knowledge “
moral, social, or otherwise “ are all bracketed from the operation of sensibility. As
noted earlier, perhaps a case could at least be made for all these exclusions when
one is explicitly talking about the experience of beauty, narrowly construed.
However, under Bell™s dispensation, by assimilating beauty theory to art theory,
art, despite its multiplicity of functions, traditions, and levels of discourse, is effec-
tively reduced to nothing more than the contemplation of beauty.
One way in which Bell appears to me to differ in his invocation of disinterested-
ness from Hutcheson and Kant is that they seem to regard disinterestedness as a test
of whether the sensation in question is aesthetic, that is, a feeling of beauty, whereas,
for Bell, disinterestedness is the very result sought after in interacting with artworks.
With Hutcheson and Kant we feel pleasure that is disinterested. But with Bell we
seek out aesthetic emotions because when we are in their thrall we are released from
or detached from the stream of everyday life.Where for Kant and Hutcheson disin-
terest is the mark of the state in question, for Bell, disinterested or detached experi-
ence would appear to be the whole point of having the aesthetic experience.Where
in Kant the play of our faculties is free because it is unconstrained by concepts and
purposes, in Bell the very value of art seems to be liberation from purpose; that is
what is good about having the aesthetic emotion.30 In this respect, Bell™s theory of art
recalls Schopenhauer™s insofar as the very point of art seems to be identified with
bringing about a divorce from everything else, rather than this sort of detachment
being a concomitant of a certain form of contemplation.
(Of course, if art is identified with separating ourselves from everything else by
restricting the art object qua art to its form, itself conceived to be divorced from
everything else, then Bell™s essentialist view of art is guaranteed, since art and our
responses to art have been isolated, by definition, from everything else. In other
words, an essentialist conclusion almost falls out, so to speak, from Bell™s theoriza-
tion of aesthetic emotion.)
Insofar as Bell regards disinterestedness or detachment to be the point of art
appreciation, things like concern with art history, morality, authorial intent,
knowledge, and utility are distractions.They stand in the way of securing aesthetic
emotions. On Bell™s functionalist model of the aesthetic stimulus, attending to
these sorts of things draws attention away from its appropriate focus, upsetting the
causal conditions that guarantee the production of aesthetic emotions. Centering
attention on anything but significant form destroys or dilutes aesthetic emotion.
This, moreover, would appear to be predictable because if one takes things like
morality as the content (or part of the content) of one™s appreciative response, then
one is unlikely to become entirely detached from the stream of life.
In order to ensure that detachment or disinterestedness is the output of our
interaction with art, the input has to be gerrymandered. In Bell™s case this is done by
reducing the artwork qua art to significant form, while in Beardsley the artwork
34 BEYOND AESTHETICS

becomes a phenomenal or perceptual field, separated from its conditions of produc-
tion and isolated from all its potential consequences, save the provocation of aes-
thetic experience. In both cases, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that these theorists

<<

. 7
( 82 .)



>>