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p. 434. Aesthetics and the selffree

  • Bence Nanay


‘Aesthetics and the self’ explains how we take our aesthetic preferences to be a big part of who we are, but how these preferences change surprisingly quickly and often without us noticing. It compares aesthetic engagement or experience to aesthetic judgements. Making judgements is rarely rewarding, entertaining, or pleasurable. Experiences, on the other hand, can be. But why are aestheticians obsessed with aesthetic judgements? The key concept of ‘Western’ aesthetics has always been that of aesthetic judgement, whereas the vast majority of non-Western aesthetic traditions are not too concerned with aesthetic judgements at all, but with the way our emotions unfold, the way our perception is altered, and the way aesthetic engagement interacts with social engagement.

Why do we pay a lot of money to listen to a concert or to buy a book? Why do we spend hours cooking a gourmet meal? And why do we exert a lot of energy to climb to a mountaintop? My answer is that we do all these things in order to have experiences that are important for us personally. These experiences matter for who we are, for who we take ourselves to be.

Just how important? Some recent experimental studies show that most of us consider our taste in music and film to be one of our most essential features. Our taste in food and clothing is not far behind. Imagine that tomorrow you wake up but you’re much smarter than you are now. Or much less smart. Would that still be you? Or imagine that you wake up being kinder or skinnier or a Republican or less interested in yoga. Would that still be you?

According to the findings, very few of these compare to the scenario where you wake up and your musical taste is the exact opposite of what it used to be. We tend to consider our taste in music to be a way more important part of who we are than our moral, political, or even religious views.p. 44

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Changing self, changing aesthetics

Our taste in music, film, and art is super-important for us. And not just that, our taste in what we eat, what kind of coffee we drink, how we dress. We take our aesthetic preferences to be a big part of who we are.

But these preferences change surprisingly quickly and often without us noticing. According to some recent findings aesthetic preferences are the most stable in middle-aged people and they are much more fluid in younger and, somewhat surprisingly, older age groups. But even the aesthetic preferences of people in the most stable age group undergo at least one major change as often as every two weeks in an aesthetic domain they really care about.

We like to think that we don’t change much. Or if we do, we are in control of this change. But we are spectacularly wrong about this. We have very little control over how and how much we change.

Take the example of a widely explored psychological phenomenon, the ‘mere exposure effect’. The more you are exposed to something, the more you tend to like it. Just the mere exposure to something changes your preferences. And this happens even if you are not aware of what you are exposed to.

The mere exposure effect influences your liking of people, songs, colours, even paintings. In one experiment, a professor of psychology at Cornell put some seemingly random pictures among the slides for an introductory vision science lecture. So in the middle of a lecture on how vision works you suddenly saw a Renoir or Morisot painting, with no explanation given. It was just there as decoration.

While these paintings seemed to come up randomly, they were part of an experiment. Some of them were shown more often than p. 45others and at the end of the semester, the students were asked to rate the pictures shown. They systematically rated those that were shown more often more highly than the ones that were shown only once. Very few of these students said that they remembered seeing any of these pictures before.

The mere exposure effect happens even if you are not aware of this exposure. An important set of findings about the mere exposure effect is that even unconscious exposure increases the probability of positive appraisal—say, if the stimulus is flashed for a very short time (under 200 milliseconds) or if the stimulus is masked (that is, cleverly hidden). It is hard not to be slightly upset by these findings. We have some control over what kinds of music and art we are exposed to, but definitely not complete control. It is more and more difficult to be in any kind of public space without music. Cafés, shopping malls, elevators. The music you are exposed to in these places leaves its mark on your preferences and this is very rarely something we would be happy about.

Our aesthetic preferences in music, film, food, clothing, and art are super-important for us, and they can and do change in a way that we have no control over. If you are a fan of free jazz and you think of yourself as a free jazz person, being exposed to Justin Bieber’s music in the supermarket will make you like the particular musical style of Justin Bieber’s songs a little bit more. And you are very likely to have no idea about this. It happens under the radar.

If our preferences can be hijacked without us noticing, then a big part of who we are seems to be the product of random mere exposure. And we are defenceless against this. When I was young and pretentious, I made a point of always walking through the pop art rooms in museums with my eyes closed. But this is difficult (and a little bit dangerous) to pull off. And when it comes to music, even more difficult. Our taste changes and there is not much we can do about it. The mere fact that it is difficult not to p. 46find this disconcerting shows just how important the aesthetic domain is for the self. But then we can’t ignore this strong link between aesthetics and the self.

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Experience versus judgement

Much of ‘Western’ aesthetics has been about well-informed aesthetic judgements. Aesthetic judgements are statements (often only to yourself, but sometimes also to others) that a particular object is beautiful or graceful or ugly or disgusting. But the vast majority of our aesthetic engagement is nothing like this. If it were, it would be difficult to explain why we care so much about all things aesthetic. The reason why we watch a three-hour-long film or take a day-long hike in the mountains is not to come up with a well-informed aesthetic judgement about the film or the landscape. If we take the importance of aesthetics in our life seriously, we need to shift the emphasis away from aesthetic judgements to forms of aesthetic engagement that are more enjoyable, more rewarding, and happen to us more often.

We do not go to a concert or cook for hours in order to pronounce aesthetic judgements. It is difficult to see why aesthetic judgements would matter for us that much. Making aesthetic judgements is really not that much fun, nor is it particularly rewarding. When we do take some kind of pleasure in making aesthetic judgements (say, when we rank our five favourite books or films, to post it on social media), this pleasure may have more to do with the communication of this judgement than with actually making the judgement. The same goes for long and intense debates with your friends about a film after seeing it in the cinema.

The temporal unfolding of our experiences in aesthetic contexts is, in contrast, fun, rewarding, and something we personally care about. It sometimes, but definitely not always, reaches its end point in an aesthetic judgement, but that is not why we are doing p. 47it. A major advantage of focusing on experiences and not on judgements is that it can help us understand the personal importance and urgency of all things aesthetic for the self.

But what is aesthetic judgement supposed to be? You go to the museum and look at a painting. You sit down in front of it and spend twenty minutes looking at it. Then you get up having formed an aesthetic judgement about it. And then you can communicate this aesthetic judgement to your friends or blog about it. Your experience of the painting lasts for twenty minutes. The judgement typically happens at the end of this process (although of course you can make judgements during the process, which you might revise later). ‘Western’ aesthetics has mainly focused on the judgement at the end of this process, not on the twenty-minute-long temporal unfolding of the experience (with its shifts of attention, visual comparisons, etc).

Aesthetic judgements don’t even happen every time we engage with something aesthetically. It is an optional feature. Suppose that I spend twenty minutes in front of the painting but I just can’t make up my mind about its aesthetic merits and demerits—I suspend judgement. This does not make my aesthetic engagement with the work of art any less rewarding or meaningful—or any less pleasurable. In fact, it can sometimes make your experience more pleasurable.

A lot has been said about how aesthetic judgements differ from other kinds of judgements. According to a broadly Kantian view, aesthetic judgement might not just be the end point of the experience; it might happen throughout and colour our experience itself. But even in this seemingly more experience-centred picture what matters most is the judgement. As long as we make the right judgement, it can lead us to have the right kind of experience. As we have seen extensively in Chapter 3, attention can change our experience radically. But aesthetic judgement very rarely can. Just because I believe that the picture is beautiful or graceful, my p. 48experience of it will be very unlikely to change (let alone change for the better). Attending to various thus far unnoticed features, in contrast, can change my experience significantly.

If we hold that aesthetics should be primarily concerned with the way our experience of the work of art unfolds temporally (whether or not this temporal unfolding culminates in an aesthetic judgement), then this general picture which begins with aesthetic judgements is just the wrong way of proceeding. We should not grant the assumption that we know the building blocks of all things aesthetic just because they are the building blocks of aesthetic judgements. We should examine our aesthetic engagement or experience in its own right and without borrowing any conceptual apparatus from the domain of aesthetic judgements.

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Aesthetic experiences of our youth

Here is a striking demonstration of how the importance of aesthetics has little to do with our well-informed aesthetic judgement. Remember your very first strong aesthetic experience? As a child or maybe as a teenager? Some piece of music that just blew you away? A landscape that left you breathless? Here are three examples from my own life—feel free to change the examples to the ones from your youth.

Exhibit A: I was 16, standing in the old Tate Gallery (there was no Tate Modern then), mesmerized by a Clyfford Still painting. I must have spent two hours in front of it there and then. I didn’t know much about Clyfford Still (1904–80) at that time. I knew he was an abstract expressionist, but that’s about it. I loved the picture so much that the next day, when I was supposed to visit the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament with my high school class, I left them, going back to Pimlico to have another look.

p. 49Exhibit B: rewind a year. I was so much into Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-up (1966) that I went to the cinema to see it two or three times a week. I knew the dialogues of the entire film by heart. Each time, I left the cinema in a state of rapture, of having understood something really important about love, appearance and reality, and other deep issues.

Exhibit C: rewind yet another year. I read a book that shook me to my core: Boris Vian’s L’Écume des jours (1947). I had felt nothing like that ever before: I felt like laughing and crying at the same time.

The point I want to make is this: I now take Blow-up to be Antonioni’s single worst film. L’Écume des jours is full of references I had no chance of understanding at age 14 and it’s way less original than some of Vian’s other novels. I still think that Clyfford Still is great, but there are also many other great works of art in that collection where, for some reason, I fell in love with this painting.

I went to Tate Modern just yesterday, in preparation for writing this chapter to see how I reacted. Well, not very strongly. I also watched Blow-up again (on my laptop, as cinemas don’t seem to show Antonioni films any more), but I had to switch it off after twenty minutes or so, I just couldn’t be bothered. And I put down the English translation of L’Écume des jours after a couple of pages (to be fair, it was because of the translation).

I had a much stronger and more rewarding aesthetic experience of these works of art when I first encountered them, knowing very little about art history, film history, or the history of 20th-century French literature than I do now, when I know a little more. I want to think that I am in a better position now to assess the aesthetic value of these works than I was at age 14–16. I can make a better aesthetic judgement now. But it is not as enthusiastic as it was then.

p. 50With my 20/20 hindsight, I should condemn the aesthetic judgement of the 14–16-year-old Bence, shouldn’t I? But if I hadn’t felt so strongly about these artworks, I would probably not have taken an interest in the arts and so wouldn’t have picked up all the knowledge that now allows me to patronize the teenage Bence.

What would be a well-informed aesthetic judgement here? Take the judgement I just made about Blow-up being Antonioni’s single worst film. That is the kind of judgement aesthetics should be about—we are told. The kind of liking I took in Blow-up as a 15-year-old is not what aesthetics is about.

My examples were intended to show that there can be, and there often is, a mismatch between the maturity of aesthetic judgements and the strength of our aesthetic experience. One conclusion that follows from this is that focusing exclusively on well-informed aesthetic judgements would leave something really important out of discussions of aesthetics: that aesthetic engagement is pleasurable and that it has some personal importance for us. We care about aesthetic engagement. An exclusive focus on well-informed aesthetic judgement cannot do justice to this very simple fact about aesthetics.

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The primacy of experience

There is an even more important reason why I introduced these examples. We have seen that it is not the case that the better informed our aesthetic judgement is, the stronger or more rewarding our aesthetic experience gets. One consequence of this is that we should include strong, rewarding, and personally important aesthetic experiences in the discussion of aesthetics (and not sacrifice these for the exclusive focus on aesthetic judgements). But experiences are also prior to judgements in a very different sense. Each and every one of our well-informed aesthetic judgements relies on some earlier experiences that are rewarding, personally important to us, and not at all well informed.

p. 51When you step into a room with many paintings in a museum and take a quick look around, maybe you like some of the pictures on display, but not others. You have no idea who painted which picture, so any well-informed judgement is out of the question. But it is this initial liking that determines which painting you will approach and spend more time exploring. The only reason we are in the position to make all things considered well-informed aesthetic judgements is because we took a liking to some artworks earlier—maybe just seconds ago, or decades ago, and that’s why we’re engaging with this artwork and not some other one.

Let’s take a step back. We have two instances of aesthetic engagement here. The experience I had as a teenager (very positive, very rewarding, very important for me personally) and the judgement I am making now (judging the work somewhat mediocre, not very rewarding, no importance for me personally). The latter is what we call a well-informed aesthetic judgement. And the latter could not have happened without the former. The question is this: what explains the aesthetic pleasure of the earlier aesthetic engagement? If we restrict our discussion to aesthetic judgements, it is difficult to see how we can answer this question. It can’t be the maturity of our aesthetic judgement because the earlier aesthetic judgement was not at all mature or well informed. Maybe the strong and rewarding earlier experience was completely inadequate and aesthetically irrelevant, but then it would seem that inadequate and aesthetically irrelevant responses are largely responsible for our aesthetic preferences, as my current aesthetic preferences are very much a product of those aesthetic experiences of teenage Bence.

This is not a trivial problem. Here is one way of making it more urgent: why should I care about my well-informed aesthetic judgements if they leave me cold? They neither give me any pleasure nor are they of any personal importance to me. Why should we learn more about art history and the history of 20th-century French literature if the result is that we have less fun engaging with art?

p. 52Here is one way out of this conundrum. Aesthetic judgements are not that much fun. Neither the naive one of the kind I made as a teenager nor the well-informed one I am making now. Making judgements, in general, is rarely rewarding or entertaining or pleasurable. Experiences, on the other hand, can very much be rewarding or entertaining or pleasurable. Similarly, pronouncing judgements is rarely the kind of thing we find personally meaningful. Experiences are the kind of things we find personally meaningful. So aesthetics should be about experiences, not judgement. These experiences can lead to judgement, which we can communicate to others and that’s a nice optional add-on, but they do not need to lead to judgement.

We spend so much time and money engaging with works of art not because we want to make aesthetic judgements about them. We do it because the experience we have while engaging with works of art can be pleasurable, rewarding, and personally meaningful. Not the judgement—the experience.

We should try to move away from the concept of aesthetic judgement in general—whether or not it is well informed. The aim of aesthetic engagement with an artwork is very rarely to come up with an aesthetic judgement and our aesthetic theory should respect this fact. We should focus on the temporal unfolding of our aesthetic experience and not on the (clearly optional) end point of pronouncing aesthetic judgements. As Susan Sontag said: ‘A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question.’

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Why judgements?

In order to shift the emphasis of aesthetic theory from aesthetic judgement to the temporal unfolding of aesthetic engagement, we need to understand why aestheticians are obsessed with aesthetic judgements to begin with.

p. 53One reason is clearly historical. The key concept of ‘Western’ aesthetics has always been that of aesthetic judgement, at least since David Hume’s ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ (1757)—which was published more than 250 years ago.

Hume (1711–76), whose influence on Anglo-American philosophical aesthetics is difficult to overstate, explicitly talks about the differences between the ways two different people make judgements of taste. He gives the following story as an illustration (borrowed from Don Quixote). Two people drink from the same wine and are asked to judge its quality. One of them says it has a discernible odd leathery taste. The other one thinks it has an unpleasant metallic note. The punchline of Hume’s story is that while we might think that at least one of these judgements is just plain wrong, when the wine was inspected, they discovered a small key with a leather thong attached. So they were both right.

I will come back to this story in Chapter 5. But what matters for us now is that although Hume clearly stresses the importance of perceptual discrimination here, what he mainly cares about is the aesthetic judgement of these two wine connoisseurs. It does not matter for them how their experience of wine unfolded through time (although a lot can be said about how the experience of wine unfolds over time). The only thing that matters is the aesthetic judgement they came up with—and how the two judgements are related to one another.

As we shall see in Chapter 5, there are important philosophical reasons why Hume was focusing on judgements, but the strength of his influence on the field of aesthetics meant that his assumption that the central concern of aesthetics is understanding aesthetic judgements went unquestioned.

Another important historical reason for the dominance of judgements in aesthetics has to do with the strong influence of p. 54philosophy of language on philosophy in general and aesthetics in particular. Aesthetic judgements are statements (that we make to ourselves or to others) that philosophy of language has a lot to say about. So aesthetic judgement is a familiar subject for aestheticians with strong philosophy of language training. Experiences, in contrast, are not so easy to analyse using the conceptual toolkit of philosophy of language.

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Going global

Here it is difficult not to point to the idiosyncrasy of this judgement-centred perspective if we broaden the scope of what we take to be aesthetics from strictly ‘Western’ aesthetics to global aesthetics. The vast majority of aesthetic traditions outside the ‘West’ are not too concerned with aesthetic judgements at all. They are concerned with the way our emotions unfold, the way our perception is altered, and the way aesthetic engagement interacts with social engagement.

The most extreme example comes from Islamic aesthetics (and especially Islamic aesthetics in the Sufi tradition). One way in which Islamic aesthetics is different from the aesthetic traditions of the ‘West’ is in its emphasis on the ever-changing nature of the world in general and of our experience of artworks in particular. And part of what is special about the engagement with art is our appreciation of these ever-changing, flickering experiences (an example would be the deliberately different views certain architectural features offer as we move around them, often further underlined by their fleeting reflections in water). This tradition is very much interested in beauty, but not with judgements about beauty, rather with the ways in which beauty could be explained in terms of the working of our perceptual system. And its emphasis on the ever-changing, flickering nature of our experience makes any attempt at a fixed judgement impossible.

p. 55We have also seen how Rasa theory is about the savouring of our multimodal emotional experiences, not judgements, which Rasa theory hardly talks about. On the rare occasion when what we would call aesthetic judgement is mentioned in Rasa theory, it is to show how stable and inflexible judgements would in fact work against this savouring of our experience. Finally, to give a somewhat obscure example, in Assyro-Babylonian aesthetics, the key concept of Tabritu is often translated as admiration and awe, but it is very clearly identified as the perceptual experience of the work, which involves ‘repeated and continuous looking’—again, unfolding experience, not judgement. The fact that in our ‘Western’ tradition aesthetic judgement has played such an important role is little more than a historical curiosity.

A less historical, but more substantial reason why the concept of aesthetic judgement has dominated ‘Western’ aesthetics is that aesthetic judgements are communicable. When we have aesthetic disagreements, we have disagreements about aesthetic judgements: I say that the film was bad, you say it was good. So in order to understand the intersubjective and social aspects of our engagement with works, the argument would go, we need to focus on aesthetic judgements. The subject of Chapter 5 is this interpersonal dimension of aesthetics.