Art and Aesthetic Experience

This is an outline of Carroll, Philosophy of Art, Chapter 4

My personal comments are in red, like this, and you can see that they have a different style of lettering.. They elaborate on Carroll or react to Carroll
. . 

Aesthetics is broader in scope than is philosophy of art. Nature is also a source of aesthetic experience, so aesthetics covers nature, not just art. 

Aesthetic definitions of art are ones that cite aesthetic experience in the definition. Artworks are treated as important because they are sources of aesthetic experiences. These experiences attract audiences. Knowing this, we can attribute the intention to serve this function to artists who create artworks.

For example, we might define art in this way:

x is an artwork if and only if (1) x is produced with the intention that is has a certain capacity, namely (2) the capacity of affording aesthetic experience.

(1) is about the creator's intentions. (2) is about the function it's intended to have. As I remarked about Carroll's discussion of Clive Bell's formalism, Carroll ignores a THIRD, highly plausible condition. In addition to (1) being produced with the intention (2) to afford aesthetic experience, it must also (3) succeed in providing the experience to one or more persons. Intentions must be at least somewhat realized. 

But some artworks are not intended to afford aesthetic experience. Carroll's example: Edward T. Cone's Poème Symphonique. It appears to be intended to "drive listeners batty." It is NOT intended to function in the way that the definition stipulates.

I don't buy this example. The work seems intended to bore, puzzle, and amuse listeners. Why aren't these experiences aesthetic? If the work is boring, puzzling, and amusing, these features of the work are "response dependent" in the way that Carroll requires of aesthetic properties. A better example would be some of Duchamp's readymades, for which aesthetic experience is not an important aspect. They are intended to be "absolutely devoid of aesthetic pleasure." See more, below.

Clive Bell defines significant form in terms of a capacity to afford aesthetic experience. However, in his account, this experience is poorly defined, which is why he was treated (in Chapter Three) as a formalist.


I. Content-oriented account: aesthetic experiences are experiences of aesthetic properties.

Now we must define "aesthetic properties." These would be SENSUOUS FEATURES (i.e., perceptual features, or features we sense) that "can be sorted under three broad headings: unity, diversity and intensity."  (Curiously, Carroll does not say much about a more traditional way to sort these. Aesthetic properties are ones that make something beautiful or ugly, or sublime, or picturesque, etc.)

Unity depends on the co-ordination of parts. Sensuous aspects that are present in high degree give us intensity. Diversity arises from increasing the variety and number of parts.

The content-oriented approach gives us this revised definition: x is an artwork if and only if (1) x is produced with the intention that is has a certain capacity, namely (2) the capacity of presenting unities, intensities, and/or diversities.

Again, I think it would be plausible to say that there's a third condition here: x must also succeed in presenting unities, intensities, and/or diversities to some people. Furthermore, many theorists who take this approach are stricter than is suggested by Carroll's "and/or" definition. For example, Monroe Beardsley proposes that a work of art is an artifact intended to have a "marked aesthetic character." He generally described this character as any object-directed experience that is experientially unified, coherent, and complete, and where the experience is guided by attention to features of the object. Because of this, Carroll might say that Beardsley has an affect-oriented account (the experience is what is unified, coherent, and complete).

2. Affect-oriented account

Aesthetic experience is a particular form of attention. It is disinterested (it is not concerned with the "practical" dimension of what we are viewing) and it is sympathetic (we are genuinely engaged with the object's creator wants us to notice).

The affect-oriented approach gives us this revised definition: x is an artwork if and only if (1) x is produced with the intention that is has a certain capacity, namely (2) the capacity of inviting and repaying disinterested and sympathetic attention.

Again, I think it would be plausible to say that there's a third condition here, requiring some success.


1. The content-oriented approach is too broad. A loaf of bread, a motor boat, and the design of a children's playground all satisfy it. Yet these are not works of art. 

I don't think much of this objection. In fact, in addition to my repeated point that Carroll has ignored the "success" condition that would normally be placed on aesthetic definitions, I think that he has ignored an obvious qualification of his FIRST condition (the intention condition). It should be that x is produced with the intention that one of its overriding functions is to provide it with a certain capacity. Where we recognize that one of its intended overriding functions is to afford aesthetic experience, we do regard everyday items as works of art, but we only make a point of it when items of that sort become scarce.

And the content-oriented approach excludes some works of art, such as very mundane ones (e.g., Warhol's film Empire), which is not intended to reward attention to its unity.

We can accept this criticism as demonstrating that the content-oriented approach is not necessary for art. It might, however, remain sufficient.

2. The affect-oriented approach is too narrow, because it excludes all art that is intended to be interesting primarily for its social relevance. If a film is supposed to move us emotionally, how can we be moved while disinterested?

Is this really such a problem? If we want to say that art and propaganda are mutually exclusive categories, then we SHOULD say that stuff that's intended to be interesting primarily for its social relevance isn't art. 

It is also too broad. Some automobile designs reward disinterested attention. But our highways are not crowded with work of art.

Why not? Once a design becomes scarce (because a new technology replaces it), we often look back and see that everyday objects have a previously overlooked capacity to reward disinterested attention.

It is also too narrow in ruling out anti-aesthetic and conceptual art, such as Duchamp's Fountain. We do not have to SEE it (or even a photo of it) in order to appreciate it.

As before, we can accept this criticism as demonstrating that the content-oriented approach is not necessary for art. It might, however, remain sufficient.


PART II: The Aesthetic Dimension  

Even if aesthetic experience does not provide a definition of art, many artworks provide aesthetic experiences. So we want to understand these experiences.

Minimally, it involves interacting sympathetically.

But can it be disinterested?

Not really. Kinds of attention are best differentiated according to their objects (i.e., the goal that motivates the attention). Financial goals lead us to focus differently than artistic goals.

If one person plays music in order to listen to it, while another only plays it to impress other people, the second person isn’t attending at all. The object here doesn’t demand attention to the music.

Since “disinterest” does not pick out anything coherent, it is best to explain aesthetic experience as attention that is directed at a certain kind of content. Aesthetic experience is “bracketed on its structure” or design. (To “bracket” is to set off from what surrounds, the way a picture frame brackets a painting.) Design and structure are important aesthetic properties.

What are some nonformal aesthetic properties?

  • Emotion properties
  • Character properties
  • Gestalt properties
  • Reaction properties

(A puzzle: Go back to chapter three and find Carroll’s preferred definition of artistic form. He thinks it is the ensemble of choices made by an artist, each intended to advance the artwork’s purpose or purposes, whether the purpose of a part or an overall purpose.  As he says repeatedly, forms are choices. But notice that the presence of an emotion property, if intended, is generally a choice intended to advance an overall purpose. So in Carroll’s theory, emotion properties are formal properties. So are reaction properties, etc. To the degree that they are chosen, all aesthetic properties are artistic form. But what if the overall point is the presence of an emotion property, which is often the case with an expressive artwork. As Carroll explains things, this purpose is not a formal property. So an aesthetic property is formal if it advances a purpose, but nonformal if is the overall purpose. But why should we agree that anger or sadness are formal in some cases and nonformal in others?)

What the various nonformal aesthetic properties have in common is that involve how something appears to us, and they are qualitative (rather than quantitative). They supervene on physical properties selected by the object’s designer. These physical properties are the “base” properties.


Does this make aesthetic properties subjective (as opposed to the objective properties that form the base)?

There are enough shared concepts, and enough convergence of agreement about which things have which properties, that aesthetic properties are not merely subjective. Like colors, they are objective, yet they are response-dependent.

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