Achieving an Aesthetic Experience of Art

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.

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About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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4 Responses to Achieving an Aesthetic Experience of Art

  1. Pingback: Birth of a Nation (1915) The Mighty Spectacle | Above the Line

  2. Simon says:

    I like this take on Art, but I think sometimes Art is not about an audience at all. It is an expression of the artist – and it is down to us to understand the art in same way. Duchamp, for example, intended to place the art piece in a gallery, thus changing the context of our perception. The artist determines how we look and appreciate the art form.

    Then, post-structurally, you have to consider the subconscious. An art piece may include details that reveal something about the artist, which the artist is unaware of. This, equally, may feed into the appreciation of the art piece. As we consider the intention of the artist – and, perhaps, what the art piece consequently says about the artist themself. So, surrealism on the one hand is fascinating because of what the artists are trying to say – but it is also fascinating because it preceded World War II, a war that sobered many people up. What was the state of the world at that time? That is why I find fascinating about Surrealism.

    • rorydean says:

      ok, that last one has me a little out of breath. Let me see if I can continue. This is an age-old debate and one I’ve lived with my entire life as an artist, first coming to terms with the idea of audience, that which is defined by others gathered for the purpose of experiencing your creation, and audience as opportunity insofar as you are looking for their praise, approval, money, offer of employ or camaraderie, etc., etc. Then there is audience of your peers, what do they say of your work and how does all this input in what you have done tell you about what you have done?

      Your statements are those of a purist, of an artist resisting the world of the audience as influence, reaction, approval and disapproval, as factors in what you might do next or never again. I know what you’re saying and I held it as truth too for a long time. But I disagree now. When the artist is present in the room with the art, he might ramble on and talk of semantics and personal aspirations, he might stand in the corner muttering the 5th symphony with the words from the McDonald’s commercial, all things that might determine how we look and appreciate his/her creation. But take him away, vanquish him from the premises, and render his influence moot, his piss pot immeasurable but from that which we place on it, defining it, giving it measure beyond what it is much in the way Warhol took the soup can and reconstituted it, reimagined it, but he made the immaterial material by giving it the substance of paint and canvas and later, photo-alchemical reprography became the substantive sum of his deconstruction of art, not our perception of art. His calling art art gave it a name, we put meaning on it, gave it form and purpose. Had he gone unnoticed I doubt we would even be entertaining his contributions to the art world.

  3. John says:

    If you are saying art is only art when you know what art is that sounds to me like snobbery. If the first thing you see is a bumble bee, the flower, the sunset and you have no vocabulary to speak of, what does that say about the lisener, how do you make them understand your appreciation of it?

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