The Boundaries of the Aesthetic

Why are the objects of high art restricted to those perceived by the eye and the ear?

Primary reference papers:

  • Kant, from The Critique of Judgment
  • Huysman, from Against Nature
  • Scruton, from The Aesthetics of Architecture
  • Osborne, “Odours and Appreciation”
  • Korsmeyer, “On the ‘Aesthetic Senses’ and the Development of Fine Arts”
  • Scruton, from Questions of Taste

While talking about aesthetics, how we perceive beauty, appreciate art, the senses tend to get categorized into two groups: the ‘higher’ senses of the eye and the ear, and the ‘lower’ senses of taste, smell, and touch. There has been a lot of debate about these two categories. When they were first outlined in class I took offense to the thought that some senses would be considered somehow lesser than others! Smell is so important, taste is so important! My mind went off in a tangent thinking about the highly artistic way a fine chef prepared a meal, or the way a wine critic examines a class of merlot. These are traditional problems that are encountered.

Why music and paintings are considered fine art but food is not? We go to art galleries, walk around, and leave feeling cultured, so why do we not to the smellys and sit for an hour smelling different smells? Why did this distinction arise?

Aquinas (1225-1274): ranks sight and hearing above the other three:

“Those senses are therefore chiefly associated with beauty which contribute most to our knowledge.”

This argument states that the three lower senses convey limited amounts of information and are therefore not as closely associated with knowledge or understanding. It is the idea that one of these senses cannot convey meaning, express though, emotion or represent something: the object is only itself. In addition, these ‘lower’ senses are bodily/physically oriented in some way, with direct attention to the animal part of our physio. The object of lower senses is consumed, the object is private or internal, and the judgment does not claim universality.

It is a good argument, but as always there are good opposing views. Onethat I particularly like is the example of incense. The Chinese and Japanese who created this art say that you do not smell incense, you listen to it. This raises the appreciation of a thing from lower to higher sense and argues that these divisions of aesthetic appreciation can be flexible in their application. In answering our main question we have to find a basis for distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ senses and their objects.

Point A: Lack of order and structure in the lower senses

Elizabeth Tefler, ‘Food as Art’:
“One cannot smell or taste a structure”

Daivd Prall, ‘Aesthetic Judgement’:
“Tastes may be subtly blended, and may odors. Cooks and perfumers are in their way refined and sensitive artists, as tea-tasters and wine tasters are expert critical judges. But such art and such criticism have no intelligible, or at least so far discovered, structural or critical principles; simply because the elements they word with have neither intelligible structure not apparently any discoverable order in variation. It is this lack that rules them out of the characteristically aesthetic realm.”

Cameron Osborne, ‘Odours and Appreciation’:
“Smells, tastes, and tactile sensations are not susceptible of serial Order or of more than very rudimentary classification; and no more than very rudimentary aesthetic structures can be formed from the material afforded by the ranges of sensation.”
“It is significant that the main European languages contain no names for the qualities of smells and we can refer to them only by metaphors…or by mentioning their source.”

(This reminds me now of an article I read about recently about impossible colors: the idea that a color might exist that you can only describe through metaphor. We could call red passionate and spicy, blue calming and serene, so would be describing a new color in this way as well?)

Monroe Beardsley, ‘Aesthetics, Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism.’
“…musical tones… [can be] ordered by intrinsic relations among the tones themselves [as can visual qualities]…Visual areas and tones are different in this respect from smells and tastes. Smells and tastes can of course be classified in certain ways…But we cannot, at least not yet, arrange them in series, and so we cannot work out constructive principles to make larger works out of them.”

One of the reasons I like this quote by Beardsley is because he says that we cannot arrange these in a series…YET. I was playing with the idea that the reason a sense as complex as smell is not used as a fine art is because we are simply not complex enough to figure out how. We haven’t yet figured out how and have therefore just described it as ‘lower’. So if one basis for distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ senses is their lack of order and structure, then another must logically follow which argues that these ‘lower’ senses are not susceptible to complexity either.

Point B: Not susceptible to complexity

To be beautiful “experience must be sufficiently complex not only to attract but to sustain attention with expanded awareness.”
(Valentine, cited in Osborne “Odours and Appreciation”, p38)

Sufficiently complex enough to sustain attention. We discussed this extensively in class, going back and forth wondering if taste, smell or touch could sustain attention and could expand awareness. Someone who makes perfumes would experience beauty in this way from smelling a lovely and complex perfume, it could expand their awareness, and it would sustain their attention. This is such a convincing example that I think that is not the point that is trying to be made here. We look now at the next discussion quote, once again from Beardsley…

“But there does not seem to be enough order within these sensory fields to construct objects with balance, climax, development, or pattern.” (p99)

So now it is not so much complexity, which seems to be subjective on expertise in some situations, but is
instead about order, again and how complexity can be achieved through that order.

Point C: Aimed at the pleasing in sensation only

“We do not choose to eat something unpleasant tasting, at least not if anything better is available. The arts of the taste and the smell aim, indeed must aim, at pleasing – at immediate,
sensuous gratification.”
(Korsmeyer “On the ‘Aesthetic Senses’ and the Development of Fine Arts”, p70)

In art the range of expression includes the terrible and the horrific. One could go to a tragic drama and leave talking about how good it was, about how wonderfully dramatized the actions were. In music we can hear sadness in the melody without being sad. There is no parallel for this in the lower senses. No one would smell a horrible smell and find pleasure in the experience.

“The ‘merely pleasant’ is not enough [in art], and is superceded by the powerful and the awesome in a way which has no counterpart in the arts of the taste and smell.” (p70)

I was thinking about this idea of enjoying tragic drama in relation to smell. It’s bringing me back to the idea that we are not thinking or perceiving smell in a complex enough way. Perhaps there are smells that are similar in experience to a tragic play, or a sad piece of music. You could say that the smell of cedar is in itself comparable, it is sharp and spicy, almost bitter but still deep in woodsy texture. And to some the odor of a cedar closet can be totally overwhelming to the point of discomfort. Spicy, bitter, overwhelming in excess: these three descriptive words for cedar are not terribly flattering, but most still say that the smell of cedar is a pleasurable one.

Point D: Distinction between passive experience and an actively engaged one

When we see something we are actively looking.
When we hear something we are actively listening.

There is absolutely no distinction between a passive and an active gustatory (dealing with taste) experience. Observation vs. contemplation, sensuous pleasure vs. cognitive pleasure. BUT as usual the example of wine tasting is brought up. Just because there is no distinction between the active and the passive in language when it comes to taste does not mean that one cannot actively enjoy a glass of wine. You could even say that they would relish a glass of wine. In using this word relish it is implied that the act of drinking is what is enjoyable, not the physical effects. It is more complex than mere sensation. The same could probably be said of whiskey, but that has been under debate.

Scruton, ‘Philosophy of Wine’:
“Non rational animals sniff for information, and are therefore interested in smells. They also discriminate between the edible and the inedible on grounds of taste. But they relish neither the smell nor the taste of the things they consume. For relishing is a reflective state of mind, in which an experience is held up for critical inspection. Only rational beings can relish tastes and smells, since only they can take an interest in the experience itself…” (p3)

Now let move on to the basis for distinction in the manner in which an object is experienced. Immanuel Kant delves deeply into this subject in his Critique of Judgment when he talks about the “agreeable and the beautiful”

First, of the agreeable: “it is not merely the object, but also its real existence, that pleases.” Kant says
that there is a connection between the subject (the person experiencing the object) and the ‘real existence” of the object itself. And that delight is pathologically conditioned by stimuli. Our professor said in class that in believing this theory one could say that lovers of architecture take pleasure in buildings, not in the experiences that are obtained from buildings. That is to say that when you look at a beautiful structure you are engaged in the building, but not how you personally interact with the building. This puts sight as the only sense used when evaluating architecture. I disagree with this. True, you can’t use a building with your eyes, but I feel that the beauty of architecture truly comes from the experience; it is how you move and interact with the space. This makes the appreciation of architecture unique from the appreciation of other art forms.

“Agreeableness is a significant factor even with irrational animals; beauty has purport and significance only for human beings, i.e. for beings at once animal and rational.” (§5)

We find certain things agreeable because they appeal to us directly on a base level. That delight is instinctual in a way; the line needs to be drawn now between what is agreeable and what we can call beautiful. Kant says above that “beauty has…significance only for human beings” that is to say, rational animals.

“As regards the agreeable everyone concedes that his judgment, which he bases on a private feeling…is restricted merely to himself personally. Thus he does not take it amiss if, when he says that Canary–wine is agreeable, another corrects the expression and reminds him that he ought to say: It is agreeable to me…when he calls it beautiful he demands the same delight from others…” (§7)

Agreeableness is subjective on a personal level, beauty is universal.
Here are some Osborne quotes about Kant’s idea:

“When we judge aesthetically we do not judge about sensuous pleasure or displeasure but about the adequacy of the experienced object to sustain attention with heightened awareness…As attention remains engrossed with expanded, not reduced awareness observation becomes contemplation. Moreover even within the sensory range which is commonly excluded from aesthetic discussion sensibility can be cultivated and perhaps it would make little sense to deny that the sophisticated experience a Chinese connoisseur seeks and obtains from fingering a jade is aesthetic in character.” (p39)

“[it is] the enrichment of awareness itself”

“The prototype of aesthetic judgment is not found in reports of our favorable or unfavorable reactions to the sensible qualities of things; it is to be found in the satisfaction which attends expanded awareness of the sensory content of experience.” (p40)

“The appreciation of art as an aesthetic activity does not envisage the direct enjoyment of sensuous pleasure or indulgence in direct, if mild, emotional stimulation. It is, as Kant intuitively grasped, a cognitive activity whose object is the enhancement and expansion of direct awareness and its reward the satisfaction deriving from the exercise of expanded awareness on an object adequate to sustain it at full tension and alertness.” (p47)

The aesthetic is a cognitive activity, the purpose of which is the enhancement of awareness and the award of which is the satisfaction of looking at an object with this newly expanded awareness. This means that with the right level of engagement any object can catch and sustain one’s attention in a complex way. A passing smell, which is experienced momentarily, is comparable to a single patch of color, a lone piano chord, or a bell tolling. Monochromatic paintings (for example, Jules Olitski and John Hoyland) occupy the entire visual field, inviting the observer to engage with the single patch of color.

“As attention remains engrossed with expanded, not reduced, awareness observation becomes contemplation”
(Osborne “Odors and Appreciation” pg39)

We see the color of traffic lights with no attention to the hue, but we look at roses with heightened awareness on the exact color red of the petals.

This leads into a bigger question of whether or not experience enhances appreciation.

Urmson says that, “Smelling a rose is the paradigm of the aesthetic” Osborne agrees, basically saying the same thing in different words: “Expanded awareness for the evocative qualities of smells is an analogy and a paradigm of [the aesthetic]” Aesthetic pleasure and aesthetic experience are linked internally. So we can conclude that the distinction between sensuous gratification and aesthetic pleasure is not so much based on which of the senses are engaged, but the manner in which the subject deals with the sensory data. Pleasure is founded in the sense’s immediate experience of the object, and when the experience stops that that point it is, as Kant would define, ‘agreeable’. BUT when that experience is reflected upon, or contemplated, that becomes aesthetic judgment.

“Sensory pleasure is available whatever the state of your education; aesthetic pleasure depends upon knowledge, comparison and culture.”
Scruton “Philosophy of Wine”

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