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attracted to the aesthetic approach because of its systematicity “ because of its capac-
ity to answer a great many theoretical questions with a highly interconnected and
interdefinable set of theoretical terms. Indeed, one suspects that Beardsley persisted in
defending an aesthetic approach “ in the face of Dickie™s indefatigable refutation of
every characterization of aesthetic experience “ because he was swayed by the ele-
gance and economy that an aesthetic theory of art would have “ if only its central
concept, aesthetic experience, could be adequately defined.
40 BEYOND AESTHETICS

The second, ostensible advantage of the aesthetic approach to art theory is
that, if one™s aim is to produce an essential definition of art, then aesthetic theories
at least appear to do this quite expeditiously.The reason for this, of course, has to
do with the supposed nature of aesthetic experience. That is, if aesthetic experi-
ence is, by definition, divorced or detached from cognition, morality, utility, and
every other realm of human life, and the art object qua art is reduced to whatever
will bring about the relevant detached experience, then, as the source of the
detached experience, the gerrymandered artwork will predictably be separate
from everything else. It will not be a cognitive or a moral instrument, for that
would interfere with its function as that which engenders aesthetic experience.
The artwork, in other words, will be essentially differentiated from other realms of
human experience just because its purpose has been defined in terms of detach-
ing us from everything else. An essentialist account of art “ of art as distinct from
everything else “ then issues almost effortlessly, so to speak, from attributing
detachment as its function.52 And insofar as theorists are obsessed with the impor-
tance of identifying the essence of art, they will be drawn to aesthetic theories,
despite their awkward mismatch with the facts of artistic practice.
But however attractive the aesthetic approach is, these benefits cannot overweigh
its evident shortcomings. On the one hand, it must confront what can be called the
Dickie problem “ that is, we need an account of aesthetic experience that persua-
sively shows that our intense attention to artworks can be described in virtue of a
conception of disinterest or detachment that is different in kind from the focused
way in which we follow anything, including baseball games, magazine articles, and
scholarly treatises, in which we take an interest.And, on the other hand, the elegance
and economy of a system like Beardsley™s must be weighed against its evident failures
in comprehensiveness, not only with respect to what it excludes from the corpus of
art but also in terms of what it strictly isolates as the sources of artistic value.
Many philosophers, of course, do not explicitly espouse an aesthetic theory of art.
However, they do often advance as intuitions such notions as that authorial intent, art
history, and cognitive, moral, and political content are irrelevant to considerations of
art proper.These intuitions are not generally shared once one leaves the precincts of
analytic philosophy. On our account, these intuitions are not intuitions at all but
really lingering fragments of a theory of the sort that Bell popularized and Beardsley
perfected.Within the context of such theories, these exclusions make some system-
atic sense. But divorced from the system as a whole, the notions that one might not
appreciate a painting qua artwork because of the way it solves an art-historical prob-
lem, or that literature qua literature might not be valued for moral or cognitive insight
rubs against deeply ingrained practices with respect to art.
Something like aesthetic theories of art operate, in a manner of speaking, as
the subconscious of the field, a subconscious shaped by the historical emergence
of art theory from beauty theory. In this light, this essay is meant to be analogous
to a kind of conceptual psychoanalysis; it is a retelling of the story of the field in a
way that reveals how a series of confused associations have kept art theorists in the
grip of a misplaced obsession with disinterest and detachment.
BEAUTY GENEALOGY ART THEORY 41
AND THE OF


Moreover, this obsession runs even deeper than the tendency of art theorists
to advance “intuitions” that are little more than fragments of aesthetic theories.
The very contour of the field of art theory shows the underlying influence of the
formative prejudices of the aesthetic approach. Scanning the analytic literature, for
example, one is struck by how little writing one finds on topics excluded from the
consideration of art proper by the aesthetic approach. The exception here is the
issue of authorial intention, the exclusion of which is still debated because of the
implications of influential views, such as those of Grice, in the philosophy of lan-
guage. However, while the cognitive and moral significance of art is rarely dis-
cussed in analytic theory, it occupies a position at center stage among nonanalytic
theorists of art; and the relevance of art history has always figured as an important
element in Hegelian and Marxist thinking.That these are not topics of concern in
the analytic tradition is a function of the tendency, perhaps subconscious, within
that tradition to conflate art theory with beauty theory.53
In conclusion, it seems eminently clear that the theory of beauty is distinct from
the theory of art.There may be points of tangency between the two, such as in the
case of discussing beautiful art. However, an at least plausible test for beauty, such as
disinterestedness, can hardly be advanced as the intended causal output or defining
purpose for every kind of artwork. Nor can it be used to circumscribe the bound-
aries of legitimate inquiry in art theory. But, if my story is persuasive, this is what has
happened in the analytic philosophy of art.That beauty theory can be referred to as
aesthetic theory may obscure this. Nevertheless, beauty theory, and the aesthetic the-
ory that is preoccupied with its problems, deal with quite a different set of questions
than does art theory. Models derived to accommodate, first and foremost, our
response to natural beauty do not promise to be fruitful in discussing art. Progress in
art theory depends on realizing that the frameworks developed to answer questions
in the aesthetic domain, narrowly construed as beauty theory, deal with distinct,
though sometimes tangential, problems. Speaking very roughly, the problems of art
theory fall more on the side of culture, while those of aesthetics fall more on the side of
nature.54 Mixing these problems together “ confusing art theory and aesthetics “ will
guarantee that we will solve none of them.




FOUR CONC E P T S A E S T H E T I C EXPERIENCE
OF


I N T RO D U C T I O N

A salient feature of critical practice over the last three decades has been an almost
exclusive emphasis on interpretation as the primary mode of the analysis of art-
works.1 Roughly put, the output of such analyses is a message “ a set of proposi-
tions that the artwork is said to imply or to entertain, or a conceptual schema
42 BEYOND AESTHETICS

(e.g., an interpretation may disclose that in the world of a fiction women are all
sorted into the categories of madonnas versus whores).These messages, then, are
often further evaluated in terms of whether they are progressive or reactionary
politically. This approach to criticism, moreover, contrasts with alternative views,
such as the notion that what a critic does is to point to features of an artwork in
order to elicit a certain kind of experience from the audience.
For instance, the critic points to one part of a painting and then to another,
foregrounding similarities, in order to enable the viewer to experience the
unity of the painting; or the critic describes the dancer™s movement in such a
way that on subsequent evenings viewers are able to perceive its qualities of
lightness or airiness. Whereas the output of interpretive criticism is a message,
the output of what we might call demonstrative criticism is, ideally, the pro-
motion of a certain kind of experience “ what is generally called an aesthetic
experience “ in the audience.
The point of demonstrative criticism is to call attention to the variables that
make aesthetic experiences possible.The idea is that by encouraging audiences to
dwell on certain features of the work in a certain way, audiences will undergo the
relevant experiences. In literary studies, certain exercises of New Criticism are
examples of demonstrative criticism, predicated on enabling readers to experience
the ambiguity of the pertinent poems. In film criticism, Andr© Bazin™s emphasis
on deep focus photography guided viewers to apperceive the experience of mul-
tiplanar complexity in the cinema of Welles and Renoir.
If recent critical practice has gravitated more toward interpretation than to
demonstrative criticism “ to deciphering messages rather than encouraging
aesthetic experiences “ then it seems worth noting that a similar emphasis on
the message is also in evidence in much contemporary art, especially gallery
art. Installation artworks, for instance, typically function as rebuses, gnomically
suggesting messages through the juxtaposition of disparate components.
Recent performance art, as well, has come to be dominated by identity poli-
tics, rhetorically advancing, for the sake of emancipatory empowerment, claims
for equal treatment toward women, gays, the disabled, and ethnic and racial
minorities. Disgruntled opponents of such artworld tendencies bewail the con-
temporary artworld emphasis on what they perceive to be political propa-
ganda, and they call for artists to return to the vocation of producing beauty,
where “the production of beauty” is shorthand for the “promotion of aesthetic
experiences.”
If it is true that the message has been in the limelight in contemporary critical
and artistic practice, then perhaps that provides a clue to the current renewed
interest in aesthetic experience. I have said that overt preoccupation with the mes-
sage is a recent development. It has most often been championed as an antidote to
aestheticism, the view said (undoubtedly hyperbolically) to have been dominant
in years gone by, that art is for its own sake and not about sending messages into
the world. Engaged in an almost oedipal struggle with aestheticism, contemporary
critics and artists have focused obsessively on the semiotic dimension of art. As a
FOUR CONCEPTS AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE 43
OF


result, aesthetic experience, the very fulcrum of aestheticism, has been put on the
back burner, if not taken off the stove altogether.
But even if aestheticism represents a false view of the comprehensive nature
of art, as I believe it does, it does not follow that there is no such thing as
aesthetic experience.The promotion of aesthetic experience may not be the sine
qua non of art, yet artworks, even artworks of a primarily semiotic cast, may
often possess an aesthetic dimension. And it is my hypothesis that the realization
of this fact is an important motivating factor in the current interest in aesthetics,
evinced by recent lecture series at Wesleyan, Brown, Rutgers, and the University
of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. If more semiotically oriented art and criticism can
be understood as a corrective to an earlier aestheticism, the still ongoing inter-
lude of preoccupation with the message is calling forth its own corrective in the
form of a renewed interest in aesthetic experience.
In the artworld, minimalism, with its premium on the perceptual experience of
the work, was superseded by postmodernist pastiche with its penchant for allusion
and discourse on real-world commodification. But as postmodernism appears to have
become the established norm, artists and critics are on the lookout for alternative
projects, of which the return to aesthetic experience is predictably one. I say this not
to endorse the sentiments of conservative critics who urge artists to abandon politics
in favor of aesthetics, because I do not think that the choice here is mutually exclu-
sive. However, such critics are an index that something has been neglected in recent
advanced artistic practice “ something whose exile may be about to be ended.
Similarly, criticism itself, after a sustained period of refining sophisticated bat-
teries of interpretive frameworks, may be coming to an awareness that it has left
something out of its purview. Exegesis has flourished as many new strategies for
interpreting art have been developed, but little effort has been spent in evolving
vocabularies for discussing and conceptualizing aesthetic experience. At the very
least, this places the academic critical estate at some distance from audiences, since
probably what audiences “ including our students “ often care about most is aes-
thetic experience. But also, no comprehensive approach to the arts can ignore aes-
thetic experience.Thus, the renewed interest in aesthetics can only be regarded as
a salutary corrective. Nor do I regard research on aesthetic experience as a
replacement for interpretation, including political interpretation, but I do regard it
as at least a supplement.There is no reason to suppose that interpretive criticism
and aesthetic criticism cannot coexist; indeed, they are generally mutually infor-
mative and often complementary.
So far, the phrase “aesthetic experience” has been bandied about rather freely.
But what is aesthetic experience? Before any new vocabularies are invented to
analyze it, we need some idea of what we are analyzing.This question, of course,
is a troubled one in the history of philosophy, notably since the eighteenth cen-
tury. In what follows, I will review four theories of aesthetic experience in the
hope of arriving finally at an account that I think will be useful for contemporary
criticism. I call the accounts, respectively: the traditional account, the pragmatic
account, the allegorical account, and the deflationary account. Maybe, needless to
44 BEYOND AESTHETICS

say, the last account, the deflationary account, is my own “ which, if I™ve rigged
this essay correctly, should appear to be the most persuasive.

T H E T R A D I T I O N A L AC C O U N T

A bland statement of the traditional account of aesthetic experience goes some-
thing like this: an aesthetic experience of an artwork involves contemplation, val-
ued for its own sake, of the artwork. That is, aesthetic experiences are
self-rewarding. Some variations of the traditional account, such as those of Kant
and Hutcheson, are framed in terms of pleasure: for them, an aesthetic experience
of an artwork is one in which pleasure is taken from contemplating an artwork for
its own sake, or, in other words, the pleasure taken from contemplating the art-
work is disinterested.These latter formulations, however, are too narrow, since it is
generally agreed that aesthetic experience may not be pleasurable. It may, for
instance, involve horror. So the blander formulation is to be preferred initially; if
we are horrified by contemplating the artwork, and we value that experience of
disturbance for its own sake, then, according to the traditional view, it is an aes-
thetic experience.
The key element in traditional accounts of aesthetic experience is the notion
that such experience is valued for its own sake and not for the sake of something
else. This is what, along with a few more qualifications, allegedly hives aesthetic
experience off from other sorts of experience. Ex hypothesi, we value the experience
of flying because it gets us to our destination. Likewise, we study physics in order to
accumulate knowledge. But aesthetic experience, putatively, is sought out for its
own sake, because it is held to be intrinsically, rather than instrumentally, valuable.
When attending to objects aesthetically, our attention is said to be disinter-
ested “ a perhaps misleading term “ that really means our attention is engaged
without instrumental or ulterior purposes. When I attend to the landscape aes-
thetically, I have no practical purposes in mind, unlike the geologist who surveys
the landscape looking for signs of profitable mineral deposits.
If questioned after reading a poem as to why you did it, and you answer because
you found the experience worthwhile in and of itself “ or even pleasurable in and
of itself “ then you are adverting to the standard idiom of the traditional account of
aesthetic experience.Your attention to the poem was disinterested, not in the sense
that you were not interested in the poem, but in the sense that your keen interest
was not predicated on any instrumental considerations, like impressing your lover.
You simply find reading the poem its own reward “ end of story.
The traditional account of aesthetic experience comes in for a lot of bad press
most often because of the doctrines with which it has been associated historically.
These include the aesthetic theory of art, of which formalism is the most notori-
ous variation. Such theories use the notion of aesthetic experience as the central
term in comprehensively defining the nature of art.The general form of such the-
ories is: something is an artwork if and only if it is designed with the intention to
afford aesthetic experience. Such theories include the qualification that there must
FOUR CONCEPTS AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE 45
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be the relevant intention with respect to artworks in order to distinguish between
artworks and things like sunsets, which, though they may afford aesthetic experi-
ence, do not do so intentionally.
Formalism is the best known example of an aesthetic theory of art. For the
formalist, such as Clive Bell, the focus of aesthetic experience is, as the name sug-
gests, artistic form. With respect to paintings, artistic form comprises relations
between lines, colors, vectors, spaces, and the like.These are said to be the appro-
priate objects of attention for painting qua painting and focusing upon them “
comprehending their studied articulation “ yields a self-rewarding experience,
one that banishes practical concerns from the mind in favor of absorption in the
abstract structure of the work.
Undoubtedly, formalists place emphasis on abstract structures just because
those are less likely to invite contemplation of the artwork in terms of ulterior
interests, like political content. This is also why formalists like Bell maintain that
the representational content of a work is at best irrelevant to its status as art, since
at worst representational elements are apt to entice the viewers into thinking
about the practical world of affairs, instead of contemplating the object for its own
sake.And, perhaps needless to say, it is this attempt to bracket considerations of the
practical world of affairs, including social relations, that has gained formalists the
reflex opprobrium of contemporary politically minded scholars.
Though formalism did provide a serviceable foundation for certain types of
art appreciation, it is an unpersuasive theory of art for the obvious reason that
much art has not been produced with the intention to afford appreciable experi-
ences of structure. Historically, most art has been designed with the intention to

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