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The Content Approach to Aesthetic Experience

Over a series of papers, I have advanced what I have called a content approach to the aesthetic experience of artworks (see, e.g., Carroll 2012). This approach begins with the observation that inasmuch as aesthetic experience is an experience, it has content. Thus, a straightforward way to begin to characterize that experience, it would appear, is to specify its content. So, with respect to artworks, what is the content of aesthetic experience? Looking at the sorts of things that people have most frequently cited as the objects of aesthetic experience, I think these include formal properties, expressive properties, and aesthetic properties. All these properties, of course, might be called “aesthetic properties” in the broad sense; however, I am using that term narrowly in order to denote qualities like brittleness or garishness that, although not expressive properties, are like them in that they refer to the qualitative dimensions of artworks. Roughly, these are the kinds of non-expressive qualities to which Frank Sibley often alludes (see, e.g., Sibley 1959). Furthermore, under the category of objects of aesthetic experience I include also reflexive relations such as attention to the reciprocal interplay between the formal, expressive, and/or aesthetic properties of the artwork and the viewer, listener, or reader of the work. Perhaps needless to say, for these experiences to be properly aesthetic, the viewer, listener, or reader of the artwork must be doing more than merely, for example, staring at a painting replete with expressive properties, like Munch’s The Scream. She must be attending to those properties with understanding that will, in the typical case, require that she be informed to some degree about the kind of work to which she is attending. So, on my account, one is having an aesthetic experience of an artwork just in case one is attending with understanding to the formal properties and/or the expressive properties and/or the aesthetic properties and/or the reflexive relations of the aforesaid properties (or just one of them) of the artwork to the relevant spectator. That is, you are undergoing an aesthetic experience if you are attending to one or a combination of these features of the artwork with understanding. This conception of aesthetic experience is disjunctive. If you are in one of the preceding mental states with respect to an artwork, then your experience is aesthetic. That is, meeting at least one of these conditions is sufficient for aesthetic experience. That is why this version of the content approach can also be called “disjunctive.” In addition, it is a deflationary account because it does not require that aesthetic experience involve some special evaluative dimension, such as that the experience be valued for its own sake, a desideratum commonly associated with aesthetic experience in many of the leading accounts of the phenomenon (see, e.g., Stolnitz 1969). This kind of approach to aesthetic experience is not unprecedented. In his earliest attempts to characterize aesthetic experience, Monroe Beardsley favored an approach like this—that is, a content approach. He counted experiences as aesthetic if they involved attention to the unity, complexity, or intensity of the artwork (see Beardsley 1981, 462). My approach covers at least the same territory that Beardsley charted insofar as unity and complexity are formal properties, while the expressive and aesthetic properties I have in mind are what makes for the intensity of the artwork; Beardsley referred to these features as regional qualities. Also, like Beardsley, I do not believe that our attention to these properties needs to be self-rewarding or valued for its own sake in order to be aesthetic. It is enough that our attention to them be informed, if only minimally, and be accompanied with understanding. I maintain that this sort of approach is superior to evaluative ones that rest upon the notion that aesthetic experiences be self-rewarding or valued for their own sake. I see no reason to discount as aesthetic the experiences of the relevant properties of the artwork that are undertaken with the aim of some advantage, such as enlarging one’s powers of discrimination and improving one’s perceptual capacities. For how else would we categorize attending with understanding to the aesthetic properties of an artwork besides calling it aesthetic? What other sort of an experience would it be? A second advantage of my version of the content approach is that it allows for negative aesthetic experiences, whereas, arguably, the evaluative approach does not. It seems undeniable that many of our encounters with artworks can be negative or indifferent. But it does not seem that these count as aesthetic experiences on the view that aesthetic experiences are self-rewarding. For it sounds like a contradiction in terms to say that an unhappy experience of an unintentionally incoherent novel is self-rewarding. Defenders of the evaluative view may charge that I am mistaken here. But they may be relying on an ambiguity in the notion of something’s being valued for its own sake. This can mean at least two things: that it is being valued as the kind of thing it is (for example, a lyric poem) and that the experience is self-rewarding. The former interpretation, of course, is not subject to the objection that I have just made. But that is not what is at stake with respect to the evaluative view, since it concerns the object of the experience and not the experience itself (which is what the evaluative view maintains is valued for its own sake). The evaluative view of aesthetic experience claims that aesthetic experiences are necessarily self-rewarding. But, on an unforced reading, all things being equal, it appears virtually self-contradictory to maintain that the unfortunate experiencing with understanding of an incoherent drama is self-rewarding. Nevertheless, such an experience is aesthetic. Again— what else would it be?1 The content approach to aesthetic experience has other virtues, but, for the moment, let mention of one more consideration suffice. The evaluative approach to aesthetic experience is very uninformative. How would one go about instructing the uninitiated about the way in which to go about having aesthetic experiences? How would you instruct neophytes to have experiences valued for their own sake? What would you say? Yet we can instruct others in the ways of having aesthetic experiences by telling them what to attend to in the pertinent artworks (along with informing them about the background necessary for attending to those artworks with understanding). If the friend of the evaluative approach claims that he will give the same advice to the uninitiated, we will want to know then what the addition of the requirement that the experience be self-rewarding adds to the lesson. One question that arises about the properties I’ve listed as the sorts of things to which aesthetic experiences of artworks attend is what these properties have in common. Is what I have proposed a mere shopping list or is there some coherent principle that holds it together? I maintain that there is a coherent principle here. Recall that we are speaking of the aesthetic experience of artworks. Thus, it pays to consider  certain common features of artworks in order to get at what binds the aesthetic experience of them together. It seems rather uncontroversial to propose we can regard artworks as having purposes, on the one hand, and ways those purposes are articulated, on the other hand. Arthur Danto, following Hegel, maintains that something is an artwork only if (1) it is about something and (2) presents it in a manner appropriate to whatever it is about (see Danto 1997). Danto refers to this second condition as “embodiment.” That is, artworks are about something, and whatever they are about is ideally embodied in an appropriate manner; this is why Danto refers to artworks as embodied meanings. However, the requirement that artworks have aboutness in the sense of a meaning is too narrow. For artworks may be beneath meaning; they may be predicated only upon raising a perceptual state or a sensation of pleasure with nothing else to say. Yet, all artworks have purposes, including the purpose of celebrating uselessness. So, to return to Danto’s formula, we may amend it by saying that artworks have purposes that they make manifest, articulate, advance, reinforce, or embody in ways that are ideally adequate to, or appropriate to, or fitting for their purposes. But what does this have to do with the properties to which I contend aesthetic experience attends? Simply this: those properties are ways in which the purposes of artworks are articulated or embodied. The form or structure of the suspense story realizes the aim of the novel—to thrill readers. The expressive properties of the writing articulate its point of view, as do the aesthetic properties. That is, the formal properties, the expressive properties, and the aesthetic properties are what implement the purposes of the artwork. They are how the artwork articulates or embodies—gives flesh to—the purposes of the artwork. To experience the artwork aesthetically then is to attend with understanding to the how of the artwork—to contemplate how the artwork works. Why call this attention aesthetic? Consider how we speak of artifacts that are not artworks. When we appreciate the fearsomeness of a suit of medieval armor, we say we are appreciating it aesthetically. Why? Because we are appreciating the way in which the design of the ensemble facilitates its purpose, namely, intimidating the enemy. Likewise, when we appreciate the how of a work of art, we are appreciating it aesthetically, that is, experiencing it with understanding.2 Speaking summarily, on my view, when we experience an artwork aesthetically, we are attending with understanding to how the artwork works. Ideally the artwork has been formally, expressively, and/or aesthetically contrived in ways that advance its purposes. Those purposes can be as varied as propounding a thesis (for example, that flatness is an essential feature of painting), raising a feeling (for example, uplifting delight at the sound of music), or even the apprehension of meaninglessness (for example, the disjunctive cutting in a surrealist film). Where the means of embodying the purposes of the work succeed, we appreciate the work and regard our experience of it as worthy of our attention. Where the how of the work falters, we depreciate it and, all things being equal, regard it as having been unworthy or undeserving of our attention.

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