The Aesthetic Attitude

Does aesthetic contemplation demand a special attitude?

Primary reference papers:

  • Kant, from The Critique of Judgment
  • Bullough, Physical Distance as a Factor in Art
  • Dufrenne, In the Presence of the Sensuous
  • Wollheim, Art and its Objects
  • Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic
  • Berlant, An Exchange on Disinterestedness
  • Hepburn, Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature
  • Burke, Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful
  • Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man
  • Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

I have talked before about Disinterestedness. The idea that you must remove yourself, your desires, your wants, needs, what you stand to gain, you experience and your personality from a judgment of aesthetic beauty. To decide if something is beautiful, and therefore universal, it needs to be completely objective, to do that you have to remove yourself from your judgment. You have to become disinterested.

A classic example was outlined in class: There is a lover of art living in a flat decorated with objects from his travels, hanging in the foyer is a painting that he loves more than anything else. Every day he walks by this painting he stops and admires, it speaks to him on some base level. When this art lover is packing up and moving into another flat a moving company is hired. The movers show up, sees the painting, and says: oh, no, this will be a problem…it’s too big, too unwieldy, how will I get it down the stairs, etc, etc. The art lover is disinterested; he gets pleasure form the painting. The mover is interested, looking at the painting as an object.

Moral of the story: As soon as you start to really look or think about the art as an object it stops being an
aesthetic experience.

This is more of a narrow sense of the aesthetic. Some philosophers, such as Osborne, maintain that anything can be seen aesthetically as long as your experience is sufficiently complex to sustain attention with expanded awareness. “This attitude can be taken up towards anything at all-even a sausage” The object is held without referring to utility, value, or moral rightness. This is a wide view of aesthetic judgment.

But narrow or wide this statement remains true: The disinterested attitude does not describe the judgment but is a condition for the judgment.

Point A: Pre-Kantian Examples of Disinterestedness

(Quick definition “Distance”: setting the object apart from the subject.)

“When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.”
(Burke 1729-1797 Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful)

Burke also distinguishes “that satisfaction which arises to the mind upon contemplating anything beautiful…from desire or lust; which is an energy of the mind, that hurries us on to the possession of certain objects, that do not affect us as they are beautiful, but by means altogether different.” (Pt III, 1)

He demonstrates a lack of self interest, for example no advantage is taken and there is no utility for the object.

Shaftsbury (1671-1713) in his Characteristics of Men explains that the subject (the person) has no “Private interest…nor has for its object any self-good or advantage.” For example: the love of God for its own sake vs. loving God with an interest in mind. Is it really loving God if through prayer or through communion you only expect to get something for yourself?

This also speaks to the Kantian idea that objects which arouse “eager desires, wishes, hopes” (like land,
fruit, other people) dot not “satisfy by mere view.”

Another philosopher’s opion that I quite like is Hume (1711-1776) who talks about this concept in his piece, “Of the Standard of Taste” he talks about aesthetic appreciation as being a state of mind:

“Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favorable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least exterior hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal disorder, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operations of the whole machine. When we would make an experiment of this nature, and would try the force of any beauty or deformity, we must choose with care a proper time and place, and bring the fancy to a suitable situation and disposition.

A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the subject; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty.”

My favorite part of this quote is the description of “small springs” in our mind, what a lovely metaphor. Hume’s definition of beauty and our interaction with beauty highly contrasts with those outlined by Kant.

Hume says that you can be right and you can be wrong about beauty because the beauty is embedded in the object itself: it is inherent. Beauty is a property and we can learn to perceive it. Kant says that it is in the experience, the experience not the object holds beauty. We see an object, a box, and that object is re-represented in our mind. This representation is what we experience. Hume continues his discourse on taste describing it also as a lack of prejudice. This prejudice could be individual temperament, education, culture, age, societal influence, etc. Basically another way of describing disinterestedness, this one is (I feel) very close to his “state of mind” point. Isn’t lack of prejudice a state of mind? “Considering myself as a man in general, forget, if possible, my individual being, and my peculiar circumstances.”

Perhaps this idea of disinterestedness could be also described as a denial of self. I like this quote by Moritz (1756-1793) from his “Attempt at Combining All beautiful Arts and Sciences Based on Their Self Sufficiency.”:

“As the beautiful object completely captivates out attention, it diverts out attention momentarily from ourselves, with the effect that we seem to lose ourselves in the beautiful object; and precisely this loss, this forgetfulness of ourselves, is the highest stage of pure and disinterested pleasure which beauty grants us.”

Point B: Kant’s Disinterestedness

Now let’s delve deeper into this important idea of disinterestedness. Kant states that there are three types of judgments:

  • The Agreeable
  • The Good
  • The Pleasurable (which is to say, of beauty, a judgment of taste).

Only this last judgment is disinterestedness. Judgment on beauty is founded in subject’s feeling.

“If we wish to discern whether anything is beautiful or not, we do not refer the representation of it to the Object by means of understanding with a view to cognition…we refer the representation to the Subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure…it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective.” (§1)

This means that it is the EXPERIENCE that exhibits beauty; therefore beauty must be determined and defined for the self. Kant’s beauty is not a property of the Object itself, but in instead in the way that it is perceived, the way it is experienced.

So, back to these three judgments: agreeable, good and beautiful. Let’s start with the first.

(i) Judgment of the Agreeable

“Agreeable is what the senses like in sensation.” (§3)

This deals with the practical feelings, feeling of appetite. The gratification is in the sensory possession of the object, not in logic or intelligence. “Agreeableness is a significant factor even with irrational animals…” (§5) The actual physical existence of the object under consideration is central to judgments of the agreeable, sensual pleasure excited a desire for possession.

“It is not merely the object, but also its real existence, that pleases.” (§5)

“…the delight presupposes, not the simple judgment about it, but the bearing its real existence has upon my state so far as affected by such an Object. Hence we do not merely say of the agreeable that it pleases, but that it gratifies.” (§3)

(ii) Judgment of the Good

“Good is what, by means of reason, we like through its mere concept” (§4)

“We call that good for something (useful) which only pleases as a means; but that which pleases
on its own account we call good in itself. In both cases the concept of an end is implied…and
thus delight in the existence of an Object or action, i.e. some interest or another.” (§4)

(iii) Pleasure, Beauty, and Judgment of Taste

“Of these three kinds of delight, that of taste in the beautiful may be said to be the one and only disinterested and free delight; for with it, no interest, whether of sense or reason, extorts approval” (§5)

And then following section five Kant defines taste in this way: “Taste is the faculty of estimating an object or a mode of representation by means of a delight or aversion apart from any interest. The object of such a delight is called beautiful.”

Specifically Kant’s point is this: to be interested is to feel pleasure in the object’s existence.

“We do not want to know, whether we, or anyone else, are, or even could be, concerned in the real existence of the thing.”

“One must not be in the least prepossessed in favor of the real existence of the thing, but must preserve complete indifference in this respect, in order to play the part of judge in matters of taste.”

“…the judgment of taste is simply contemplative. It is a judgment which is indifferent as to the existence of an object, and only decides how its character stands with the feeling of pleasure and displeasure.” (§5)

There are been several views following from Kant. Three important names here are Schiller, Schopenhauer, and Bullough.

(i) Schiller (1759-1805)

“Contemplation (reflection) is Man’s first free relation to the universe which surrounds him, If desire directly apprehends its object, contemplation thrusts its object into the distance…thus securing it from passion.” (Letter 25, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man)

“The inevitable effect of the beautiful is freedom from passions.” (Letter 22)

During class we talked about this example…the Neolithic man hunts, makes tools, and maintains his shelter for practical purposes. He is surviving to live, and living simply to survive. One day he adds a few lines onto the wooden hilt of his tool. This does not serve practical purpose. When adding that ornament for the first time humans are free, so argues Schiller, it is not something that is driven by needs or desires. It is the first free relation to the universe. This man is finally doing something for himself, for the sheer pleasure of it, rather than out of necessity.

Humans crave aesthetic beauty, everywhere, every day we beautify our lives. But if you get too close to the pressing practicalities of the thing you cannot enjoy it aesthetically.

(ii) Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Schopenhauer was a German philosopher. He is another interesting character, and was pretty widely well known for his unflagging pessimism. His philosophy concentrated on the power of will. He sees life as ceaseless desires, craving, and attachments. We are driven to do everything in our lives by our overpowering and consuming will. Basically we are shackled to our basic desires, and what results is a painful, futile, and meaningless existence. For Schopenhauer this human desire (“willing”) and endless cravings cause suffering and pain. The interesting thing is that he sees Art as a temporary escape from the absolute misery of existence. Art, beauty, aesthetics, allows humans to put distance between them, the world, and their selves. In this way they can escape from the will.

“If, raised by the power of the mind, a man relinquishes the common way of looking at things, gives up tracing…their relations to each other, the final goal of which is always a relation to his own will…if, further, he does not allow abstract thought, the concepts of reason, to take possession of his consciousness, but, instead of all this, gives the whole power of his mind to perception, sinks himself entirely in this, and lets his whole consciousness be filled with the quiet contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether a landscape, a tree, a mountain, a building, or whatever it may be…forgets even his individuality…”
(The World as Will and Representation, I, p231)

(iii) Bullough (1880-1934) “Physical Distance as a Factor in Art.”

The phenomenology of physical distance is centered in the experiencing subject.

In his article Bullough uses the example of experiencing fog at sea. Normally this experience (the fog at sea) is considered annoying, unpleasant, anxious, terrifying, etc. etc. BUT with a “difference of outlook” one could come to enjoy it; it has the potential to be transformed through distance.

Fog at sea can be extremely dangerous, it used to be impossible to navigate in, unexpected rocks or shoals would be invisible, and most times the boat would be stranded waiting for the clouds to lift. Imagine standing on deck in that cold terrifying shroud, and then put distance theory into that situation. Take yourself out of the boat, and the dangers that fog can present. Perhaps then the quite solitude in ocean cloud could be quite peaceful, the play of waves and mist beautiful. The soft light cast on every object. A storm at sea is terrible, but if we are not in danger we might enjoy it. The sublime is that thrill.

“…putting the phenomenon, so to speak, out of gear with our practical, actual self; by allowing it to stand outside the context of our personal needs and ends.”

I relate to this example on several levels. I like to play around with perception, especially perception of difficult or uncomfortable situations. There have been many times where I have been, metaphorically, in that foggy ocean. Situations so painful and uncomfortable that it struck me to my very center, the only way to not be miserable and terrified was to remove myself from my experience, it was to adjust my outlook. Through sheer willpower I could enjoy the rain that was freezing me minutes before, admiring the way it carried on the wind. I could transform my sorrow through distance.

“Distance…is obtained by separating the object and its appeal from one’s own self, by putting it out of gear with practical needs and ends.”

In theatre “it is Distance which primarily gives to dramatic action the appearance of unreality and not vice versa.” It is distance that allows us to see a murder acted on stage without feeling mortified; it is distance that allows us to enjoy dramatized tragedy. But without this distance we cease to appreciate the art, we get too close to the object, putting too much of our own experience into it.

“The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” (more commonly known simply as Othello) is a famous play written by William Shakespeare. In typical Shakespearean tragic fashion there is deceit, murder, suicide, and bloodshed at every turn. To demonstrate this point of distance (or lack thereof) we go to a hypothetical performance. In the audience is a husband, a jealous husband who suspects his wife of adultery. While watching the play the husband projects himself into Othello’s hypothetical shoes, his own situation, his own doubts and worries, chasing around his head. He is too close to the action of the play. He does not, and perhaps cannot, distance himself. Therefore he is not appreciating the play; in fact he is barely seeing the play as an aesthetic work!

But this does not mean that distance has to be impersonal.

“Distance does not imply an impersonal, purely intellectually interested relation of such a kind. On the contrary, it describes a personal relation, often highly emotionally colored, but of a peculiar character. Its peculiarity lies in that the personal character of the relation has been, so to speak, filtered. It has been cleared of the practical, concrete nature of its appeal, without, however, thereby losing its original constitution.”

Other 20th Century Theorists:

Ingarden, Polanyi:
“In painting and drama the basic techniques and instrumental material used by these arts detach them quite definitely from the course of our normal experiences. (Polanyi & Prosch Meaning p117)

“The work of art and the aesthetic object generally is ‘autonomous’ and ‘self-contained,’ and must be appreciated as such” (“On the Origins of ‘Aesthetic Disinterestedness’” p131)

Note: Could disinterestedness be seen as providing/answering to an epistemological (dealing with knowledge, how that knowledge is acquired, and to what extend a subject or entity could be known.) category? …more specifically the question of the discontinuity between art and the everyday experience.

What about the place of disinterestedness in enjoying fiction/horror?

Against Disinterestedness:

Now we are all comfortable with the idea of disinterestedness, perhaps it makes sense. You could argue its logic intelligently and with reason. This is the time where conflicting views are presented and everything that you think you understand now becomes once again shrouded in doubt and confusion.

Three cheers for philosophy!

While probably sporting the world’s most majestic mustache Nietzsche responded to Kant’s quotation “That is beautiful, which pleases us without interest.” with this charming retort:

“Without interest! ….When our aestheticians never wary of maintaining, in favor of Kant, that under the spell of beauty one can view even undraped female statues ‘without interest’ we may, to be sure, laugh a little at their expense.” (On the Genealogy of Morals)

Against disinterestedness, more specifically, Nietzsche outlines that experiencing beauty is an experience of the personality, a whole body and mind experience. To disinterest your self would defeat the purpose.

Disinterestedness gives bias towards the male rational and not to the female body, embodied and the sensual. Fine art becomes masculine. She argues that there is a distinctly masculine bias towards the ‘higher’ or more cognitive senses. The rational animal is male; the emotion is female.

Fine art is intimately connected with politics, ego, and capitalism; you shouldn’t ignore or discount those factors by becoming disinterested.

Stripping away knowledge and experience all for a ‘tingle’ is absurd.

“…the prevalence of the time-honored Tingle Immersion theory, which tells us that the proper behavior on encountering a work of art is to strip ourselves of all the vestments of knowledge and experience (since they might blunt the immediacy of our enjoyment), then submerge ourselves completely and gauge the aesthetic potency of the work by the intensity and duration of the resulting tingle. The theory is absurd on the face of it and useless for dealing with any of the important problems of aesthetics; but it has become part of the fabric of our common nonsense.”

A thing might be beautiful in one place or use, but it could change in another. I connect most with this argument because he says that disinterestedness does not account for the aesthetic dimensions of our practical (interested) daily life. These practical concerns appear prominent in design and architecture. There is a deep complexity to aesthetic experience, there is no separate mode of this experience, and it is instead conjoined with the social, religious, practical, and cognitive. He is aestheticising everyday life and personally I really buy into that idea.

“It cannot adequately account for much in the contemporary development of the arts, for the aesthetic appeal of the natural world, or for the aesthetic manifestations of industrial cultures.”
(“An Exchange on Disinterestedness” p1)

Proposes that the best art critic is “one whose cognitive stock is empty, or who brings to bear upon the work of art zero knowledge, beliefs, and concepts….It is all but impossible in practice.”

Alternatively, George Dickie goes back to Kant’s idea of disinterestedness, describing distance as “a kind of mental insulation necessary for a work of art if it is to be enjoyed aesthetically.” (p173)

“When the curtain goes up, when we walk up to the painting, or when we look at a sunset are we ever induced into a state of being distanced either by being struck by the beauty of the object or by pulling off an act of distancing? I do not recall committing any such special actions [to distance] or of being induced into any special state [being distanced], and I have no reason to suspect that I am atypical in this respect …The distance-theorist might argue further, “But surely you put the play (painting, sunset) ‘out of gear’ with your practical interests?” This question seems to me a very odd way of asking…if I attended to the play rather than thought about my wife or wondered how they managed to move the scenery about. Why not ask me straight out if I paid attention?” (p173)

(1) Jones listens to a piece of music in order to analyze it for an exam, Smith listens for pleasure. Motives differ, but “There is only one way to listen to music, although the listening may be more of less attentive and there may be a variety of motives, intentions, and reasons for doing so and a variety of ways of being distracted from the music.”

So motives can be interested, but modes of attention cannot. Intention and motive are different from action. “The attending itself is not interested or disinterested.”

(2) “A painting reminds Jones of his grandfather and Jones proceeds to muse about or to regale a companion with tales of his grandfather’s pioneer exploits…Jones is not looking at (attending to) the painting at all…Jones is now musing or attending to the story he is telling”
“Distraction is not a special kind of attention; it is a kind of inattention.”

(3) Case of impresario. (An impresario is the Italian name for the person who organizes and often finances plays, operas, concerts etc.)

“It would not make any sense to say that the impresario is attending the play at all, since his sole concern at the moment is the till. [That] which the attitude theorist would propose as cases of interested attention turn out to be just different ways of being distracted from the play and, hence, not cases of interested attention to the play.”

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