Art & Ideology of the 20th Century
According to Edward Bullough, a psychologist and philosopher of art, aesthetic experience of art depends on an appropriate distancing of oneself from the artwork. This distance is characterized by two value charges, positive and negative. The negative, or inhibitory aspect, involves the elimination of the practical sides of things and our practical attitude towards them. If we ignore or avoid our preconceived notions about a given object or situation we can alter our reaction to it and thus experience it without prejudice or obstacle. The positive aspect is the result of being in a position to expound on the experience because of the newly appreciated freedom afforded by the inhibitory aspect. Without the constraints of our fears or bias, we can experience an object objectively while turning our subjective affections to the object instead of ourselves.
In order to achieve a ‘psychical distance’ and therefore nurture an aesthetic attitude, one must balance their objective and subjective responses to an object or situation. This balance assumes a certain detachment or distance, but also requires a personal connection to the subject without going too far in either direction. In this case, Bullough sites the effects of “over-distanced” and “under-distanced.” With “over-distanced,” this refers to a critic who might spend too much time with the technique and style of a work and miss the emotional content. “Under-distanced” would explain when someone becomes too emotionally connected with a work and therefore cannot effectively engage the technical elements of it. Bullough believed in the least amount of aesthetic distance without losing it all together.
Bullough states that, “this distanced view of things is not, and cannot be, our normal outlook” because of the very necessity for us to maintain a practical grasp of the world around us. As he explains, “the sudden view of things from their reverse . . . comes upon us as a revelation . . .” and in accordance, such a reaction to an object or situation would obviously distract us from functioning in a practical manner. This is to say that we must not live our lives outside the practical parameters of things and our practical attitude toward them. To simply discard these rules would put us in jeopardy if we were to regularly and without conscience ascend the clouds and muse over the beauty of the sky without regard for the dangers of traffic rushing all around us. Furthermore, according to his definition, we require viewing things from their reverse and if we were to be permanently open to only that which appeals to us, we would often miss out on those experiences which lack in some degree this condition. In order to preserve our ability for revelation, we must move freely in and out of this state of distance.
George Dickie, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at University of Illinois at Chicago, is against the view that aesthetic experience depends upon a specific attitude on the part of the audience. Dickie does not believe there are actions denoted by “to distance” or states of consciousness denoted by “being distanced” because these terms define a kind of special action or condition whereby the spectator is distracted from the object or situation. He would rather consider the idea of attentiveness or inattentiveness over distance in this regard.
Unlike Bullough, Dickie is more concerned with the value of paying attention to a work rather than any notion of a predefined relationship based on distance. Dickie contends that distraction has more to do with our inattentiveness than whether or not we are affected by personal or professional distance. This is the underlying difference between his view and Bullough. Dickie follows that disinterestedness or intransiveness refers more to motive than distraction. Disinterested attention, he feels, misleads aesthetic theory because it attempts to set limits on aesthetic relevancy and purposes to differentiate between the critic and the spectator. According to Dickie, the importance is placed on our motive and not our level of so-called distraction or the varying measure of distance as outlined by Bullough.
In Dickie’s example of Jones and Smith, he explains that the two men may indeed possess different intentions and/or motives for listening to the music, but states that they listen in the same fashion. His distinction here is with disinterested listening and interested listening which can be distilled into motive and intention. The difference lies in the motives of the critic and non-critic instead of their distance or detachment from the practical. We can examine this similarly in our approach to a visual work as well. The idea, according to Dickie, is that we all possess different motives and/or intentions without regard to our background or experience.
Bullough’s definition of aesthetic attitude adheres to the principle that in order to engage a work we must maintain a simultaneous balance of criticism and appreciation. It is this balance I feel is the most effective practice of approaching aesthetic attitude. I believe there is a loss of responsibility in the way in which we engage art today. There should be a distinction between the ways in which we perceive and ultimately appreciate a work of art. A critic, having spent his or her life engaging art and honing the eye to the particulars and subtleties of aesthetics, has a richer position from which to engage a work. The average person who is unfamiliar with the historic movement and development of art is less prepared to think critically and communicate effectively on the experience. This is not to say that this is an absolute condition for experiencing art or that the level at which the critic engages the work is better than the average person. Rather, the extent of the critics abilities involve a more informed and therefore more coherent understanding of what is before them without regard to personal taste or subjectivity. At the same time, the critic is just as responsible to attend to the work with an equal amount of analytical and emotional aspects to fully convey to themselves as well as others, the significance and aesthetic attitude associated with the work.
My initial response to Marcel Duchamp, a French/American artist whose work is most often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, could easily be examined according to Bullough’s definition of Psychical Distance. I believe my own personal distaste for Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, the actual object itself and its practical function, prevented me from fully grasping the significance of the artist’s message. In this case, the conceptual significance and meaning is intended to supersede the object and thus become the aesthetic quality of the work. I was not able to achieve a balance in my experience of the object and consequently the breadth and width of the work was unavailable to me. This is not to say Dickie’s assertion was inadequate, that I was simply inattentive to the work, but goes further to examine the role of my personal subjective tastes as influence on my experience of the object without bias.
Duchamp’s Fountain serves to remind us that in art we must continually consider the objective and subjective value of a work. After coming to an understanding regarding conceptual art as art with a message, I believe I am now at a place where I can fully engage the Fountain and discuss it beyond mere personal taste. Within this balancing act, the essential elements of my experience serve to work together in a mechanical relationship. Much like an engine, where the pistons require the internal combustion of fuel to operate, it is often necessary to examine the symbiotic relationship of personal taste to critical examination. Each operates together or the resulting imbalance can cause a failure of the whole. Insofar as we arrive at a work of art that at first is personally unavailable, we can rely on our critical understanding to provide us with a means to appreciate without the need for subjective praise. In this fashion, we have married the aspects of Bullough’s distance according to the Aesthetic Attitude.