8.2 Aesthetic Experience and Judgement

8.2.1 Aesthetic Experience and Attitude

Aesthetic experience happens when we are able to experience works of art in a particularly satisfying or pleasurable way. This can occur when we have a disinterested attitude toward a work of art. The thing of beauty is experienced in its own right, not for any useful purpose and not out of simple curiosity.

Immanuel Kant’s account of the idea of disinterested interest stands as a central principle of contemporary aesthetics. Recall from the material on the nature of beauty that Kant believed judgments about beauty to be based on our feeling of pleasure (or displeasure) and are a matter of taste, not of reason. While he regarded aesthetic judgement as subjective, he still believed that aesthetic judgements, in order to have meaning, must be made from a disinterested attitude, that is without our personal, emotional baggage. Pleasure or satisfaction is derived from the judgement of beauty. It is not the other way around: the pleasure or satisfaction does not produce the judgement of beauty, because such a judgment could not be disinterested; it would be derived from and clouded by other feelings and emotions. Disinterested judgements are impartial and pure; interested ones are biased and tainted with our personal experience and emotions.

Kant published his account of aesthetics in a third major critique — The Critique of Judgement (1892). In the following short passage from Book I of this Critique, he explains the idea of disinterested interest by comparing it to ordinary interest.

The satisfaction which we combine with the representation of the existence of an object is called interest. Such satisfaction always has reference to the faculty of desire, either as its determining ground or as necessarily connected with its determining ground. Now when the question is if a thing is beautiful, we do not want to know whether anything depends or can depend on the existence of the thing either for myself or for any one else, but how we judge it by mere observation (intuition or reflection). If any one asks me if I find that palace beautiful which I see before me, I may answer: I do not like things of that kind which are made merely to be stared at. Or I can answer like that Iroquois sachem who was pleased in Paris by nothing more than by the cook-shops. Or again after the manner of Rousseau I may rebuke the vanity of the great who waste the sweat of the people on such superfluous things. In fine I could easily convince myself that if I found myself on an uninhabited island without the hope of ever again coming among men, and could conjure up just such a splendid building by my mere wish, I should not even give myself the trouble if I had a sufficiently comfortable hut. This may all be admitted and approved; but we are not now talking of this. We wish only to know if this mere representation of the object is accompanied in me with satisfaction, however indifferent I may be as regards the existence of the object of this representation. We easily see that in saying it is beautiful and in showing that I have taste, I am concerned, not with that in which I depend on the existence of the object, but with that which I make out of this representation in myself. Every one must admit that a judgement about beauty, in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and is not a pure judgement of taste. We must not be in the least prejudiced in favour of the existence of the things, but be quite indifferent in this respect, in order to play the judge in things of taste.

We cannot, however, better elucidate this proposition, which is of capital importance, than by contrasting the pure disinterested satisfaction in judgements of taste, with that which is bound up with an interest, especially if we can at the same time be certain that there are no other kinds of interest than those which are now to be specified.

Several sections later, after comparing the satisfaction of “the Beautiful” to that of “the Pleasant” and “the Good,” Kant declares that only taste in the beautiful can be disinterested and free from the dictates of sense and reason. Taste, or disinterested judgement, that brings satisfaction derives from beauty; this is Kant’s nutshell summary:

Taste is the faculty of judging of an object or a method of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful.

An aesthetic attitude is a disinterested attitude. With a disinterested attitude, personal biases and irrelevant emotions are set aside. Aesthetic judgements of taste are made as if we expect that others would agree with us. Though reached on an individual’s level, judgements of taste do not imply that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; disinterested judgement is about the beautiful thing, not about the beholder. An aesthetic attitude is disinterested; there is distance from ordinary cares and concerns. An aesthetic attitude involves being interested in something for no practical reason, but merely for its own sake.

Supplemental resources (bottom of page) provide additional perspectives on aesthetic experience.


8.2.2 Aesthetic Judgement and Art Criticism

Theories we have already encountered for defining art are vantage points for making aesthetic judgements about particular pieces of art. Our initial question was: “What is art? ” Now we ask: “What is good art?” Before looking at aesthetic judgement through the lenses of different theories, it is helpful to revisit the distinction between subjectivism and objectivism we considered with regard to the nature of beauty.

Subjectivism: If we believe that beauty is purely subjective, that it is in the mind of the beholder, then we are committed to a subjectivist position on aesthetic judgement. There is no fact-of-the-matter about what is good art or about which art we should like or appreciate. All is a matter of individual preference. In this view, no one can be wrong in his/her opinions about the aesthetic experience. Aesthetic judgements and art criticism can have no point.

Objectivism: If we view beauty as objective, as something that exists in its own right within the “something” or art object, then we can hold that there is a fact-of-the-matter about what is beautiful and what is good art, and about which art we should like or appreciate. Objectivism means that aesthetic evaluations or preferences can be wrong or misguided.

Aesthetic theories guide judgements and provide the context for art criticism, which evaluates art and provides direction for how art should be interpreted, appreciated, and understood. Art criticism is a wide-ranging discipline. There are numerous other aesthetic theories, besides fundamentals addressed in this introduction to aesthetics. For example, some theories are interested in the intentions of the artist. Should a work of art be understood in terms of the artist’s personal knowledge, skills, and intentions? Or should the meaning of a work be established by social conventions and practices of the artist’s time that may not even be known or understood by the artist?

Each of the theories we examined for defining art is described here in terms of its capacity for judging art. Keep in mind that using the perspective of one theory for judging art does not exclude using the perspective of other theories alongside. One might judge a painting, for example, both in terms of its form and its expressive/emotive qualities. And also remember that aesthetics is an expansive field of study and there are other theories besides those treated here.

Representationalism

A representational theory for defining art requires it to be an imitation of something real. Though representation, or imitation, is no longer considered by most people to be a determining factor of what makes something art, representational art still remains well accepted and popular. A representational theory for judging art is concerned with the aesthetic interest of the representation, which does not necessarily entail the accuracy or precision of the representation. Some people are comfortable with art that portrays something they recognize; it can elevate an aesthetic experience more effectively than art that is completely abstract.

Formalism

The aesthetic form of a work of art is everything that is not the subject matter of that artwork. Form includes the way that the parts and materials are put together and organized. The parts of the work of art must be arranged in a way that will stir our aesthetic sentiment. Aesthetic judgments about form apply to both representational and abstract visual art; lines, shapes, perspective, light, colors, symmetry — all of these elements contribute to the aesthetic experience. Other forms of art (for example, music) have their own sets of formal attributes.

Kant was an early advocate of formalism. Such formal elements of an object as shape, arrangement, and lines, he argued, contribute in an important way to aesthetic judgements. However, he believed elements like color or tone to be more connected to our sense of what is agreeable rather than beautiful; they relate to “interest” rather than “disinterest.” Still, Kant’s overall high regard for the significance formal aspects of art is foundational in contemporary aesthetics.

Functionalism

Functionalist theories expect a work of art to serve a purpose, and the value of a work of art is determined by how well it satisfies its purpose. In order to explain or understand the meaning of a work of art we must know what it is for or what it is supposed to do. Functionalist theories are usually, but not always, concerned with art that has a practical purpose. Functional excellence of a practical object is often looked at together with form. That good form follows from good functionality became a 20th-century principle for industrial design and modernist architecture.

There are functionalist theories that look beyond practical purposes. A rewarding aesthetic experience might to be a legitimate purpose or function in its own right. The following reading assignment develops the idea that having purely practical function is not in and of itself an adequate measure aesthetic value.


Reading

Contemporary Aesthetics: “Aesthetic Functionalism.” Aesthetic Functionalism[CC-BY-NC-ND]


Emotionalism

Recall that emotionalism requires that works of art effectively express feelings or ideas. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote in his 1898 work What is Art? (page 51 of the 1904 translation):

Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings that he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.

An aesthetic judgement made from the point of view of emotionalism must consider how successful a work of art is in expressing and “infecting” others with feelings and emotion. (Perhaps aesthetic judgement from a purely disinterested attitude requires discipline when experiencing highly expressive art.) There may be something counter-intuitive afoot if the feeling conveyed is not pleasant. Is it still art? Humans, in fact, are drawn to art that conveys feelings such as sadness or terror, for example, in movies, fiction, and even certain music or paintings. It may be argued that such “aesthetic experiences” bring emotional relief and release, effects not exactly synonymous with pleasure. But, if intense emotion, even if not joyful, is satisfying, the beauty may be there even from Kant’s perspective. And any release or therapeutic effect might be seen as having value, or serving a purpose, from the functionalist’s viewpoint.

The following TED talk by designer Richard Seymour refers to some of the judgement theories we have covered in making his interesting case for the importance of beauty in product design.


Video

How beauty feels. Enjoys this 17-minute video. [CC-BY-NC-ND]


Coursework

Richard Seymour believes that we “feel” beauty, rather than “think” beauty. (Kant and Hume would agree!) He also describes how designers intentionally instill their creations with features intended to arouse feelings, what he calls a limbic response. Do you think that the responses he describes involve a disinterested attitude? Are they aesthetic experiences? Use examples from his talk to explain your answer.

Note: Post your response in the appropriate Discussion Topic.

This assignment involves applying what you have learned about aesthetic judgement.

Please pay close attention to these instructions:

  1. Do some browsing on the internet and choose an art image, preferably a fine-art painting.
  2. Save the painting and artist name, and internet location where you found it.
  3. Provide an art critique of this work of art from a disinterested viewpoint, making use of one or more of these theories: formalism, representationalism, emotionalism, and/or functionalism.
  4. Your submission should be a well written essay, 150-250 word.
  5. Include the artist’s name and the name of the work of art. I need to be able to find this image online in order to evaluate your submission.
  6. Do not include the image itself in your submission.

    Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.

Complete the Unit Test by the date on the Schedule of Work.


Supplemental Resources

Aesthetic Experience

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Immanuel Kant: Aesthetics. Section 2 on Kant’s Aesthetics.

Smithsonian Magazine “Tactile Portraits for the Blind.” Please Touch the Art. An interesting variation of aesthetic experience.