August 30, 2011
The aesthetic can be found in this statement: "If looking at a picture and attending closely to how it looks is not really to be in the aesthetic attitude, then what on earth is?" It seems to be the case that when we look at a flower in the way that the scientist does, we see the flower in one way, but when we look at the flower in a way as to view it as a thing of beauty, charm, elegance, we see it in a different way; we see it as an aesthetic object.
Viewing the flower in such a way as to see it, or any object, as an aesthetic object, is to be in the aesthetic attitude. The aesthetic attitude has figured prominently in aesthetics from the Enlightenment until the present. Its most important formulations are disinterestedness (Kant, Schopenhauer, Stolnitz), Psychical Distance (Bullough), Aldrich's Impressionistic Viewing, Scruton's Empiricistic Account, and (though these latter views are not attitude theories per se) the naturalistic work of John Dewey and Monroe Beardsley.
The aesthetic-attitude theories grew out of eighteenth and nineteenth century faculty of taste and association of ideas theories and the notion of disinterestedness. Any object (with certain reservations about the obscene and the disgusting) can become an object of aesthetic appreciation. The aesthetic attitude is held to be a special kind of perceptual experience, a specific mode of experience, and is usually premised on either some kind of being distance from everyday practical life or attending to the picture in a certain way termed disinterested.
The concept of disinterestedness is central to modern aesthetic theory and it basically means looking at a picture with no ulterior motive--ie., without economic, moral, or political satisfactions. When we judge an object aesthetically we are unconcerned with whether and how it may further our practical aims. Hence our attitude toward the object as disinterested.
Jerome Stolnitz says that the aesthetic attitude is "disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of any object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone." "Disinterested" means "no concern for any ulterior purpose," "sympathetic" means "accept the object on its own terms to appreciate it," and "contemplation" means "perception directed toward the object in its own right where the spectator is not concerned to analyze it or ask questions about it." Whereas a practical attitude limits and fragments the object of our experience, allowing us to “see only those of its features which are relevant to our purposes,” the aesthetic attitude, by contrast, ‘isolates’ the object and focuses upon it—the ‘look’ of the rocks, the sound of the ocean, the colors in the painting.”
Is disinterested attention to a picture plausible?
It looks to be part of a formalist aesthetic of modernism, which has fallen on hard times. By this I mean the antiquated notions of the 'autonomy of the work of art' and the 'autonomy of the aesthetic' that persisted through the modernist period, or better still, that served as its philosophical cornerstone. We now live with the end of artistic autonomy, of the work of art and of its frame. Thus is our world and the the only kind with which we can work.
George Dickie in his essay “The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude” (Dickie 1964) argued that all the purported examples of interested or distanced attention are really just examples of inattention. So consider the case of the spectator at a performance of Othello who becomes increasingly suspicious of his wife as the action proceeds, or the case of the impresario who sits gauging the size of the audience, or the case of the father who sits taking pride in his daughter's performance, or the case of the moralist who sits gauging the moral effects the play is apt to produce in its audience. These and all such cases will be regarded by the attitude theorist as cases of interested or distanced attention to the performance, when they are actually nothing but cases of inattention to the performance: the jealous husband is attending to his wife, the impresario to the till, the father to his daughter, the moralist to the effects of the play. But if none of them is attending to the performance, then none of them is attending to it disinterestedly or with distance
Secondly, we would like to draw knowledge from looking at a picture but this seems to be in conflict with the aesthetic attitude. An attitude which hopes to derive aesthetic pleasure from an object is often thought to be in tension with an attitude which hopes to derive knowledge from it.
So the current return to the aesthetic that argues for an existence of aesthetic experience outside historical time is a conservative project of restoration of the old disinterested aesthetic clothes of the high modernist tradition that seeks to eradicate everything extra-aesthetic in the works they celebrate. It is the properties of sensory Beauty that are a central concern to traditional aesthetics and traditional artistic production. Sensory beauty is the heart of the matter for this tradition.