Beyond Beauty: nature and critical relevance of aesthetic properties
The crisis of the aesthetic conception of art led to the conceptualist turn that has presided the artistic development since the sixties. With the irruption of pop art, minimalism, or conceptual art, among others, the appearance offered to the senses was mostly considered irrelevant in order to define and appreciate art.
The view of the philosopher and art critic, Arthur Danto was paradigmatic. Danto (1981) explained that given two objects with similar appearance, or perceptually “indiscernible”, one of them could very well be a common object while the other nonetheless could be a work of art. This could be so because the artistic status of the latter would not depend on its perceptual properties, therefore neither on its aesthetic properties but on being an object that embodies a meaning open to interpretation.
Danto shared with artistic formalism (at the time prominent in art criticism but deeply rejected by the new artistic movements), certain radical perceptual conception of the aesthetic as well as the identification of the aesthetic mostly with beauty and other qualities of good taste that, for formalism, justified artistic value. Years later, Danto (2003) underlined that the actual gap opened by the art of the sixties and seventies was between art and beauty, making possible aesthetic pluralism, which will include an almost endless range of aesthetic qualities, including some like ugliness or disgust, opposed to what was before considered aesthetic excellence yet aesthetic after all, and perhaps more representative of recent art.
Our project is located in this line of reviewing the relationship between art and the aesthetic.
Terms such as “beautiful”, “balanced”, “elegant”, “dynamic”, “vivid”, “witty”, “funny”, “violent”, “disturbing”, “sad”, “dull”, or “boring” are often used to describe, interpret, and evaluate artworks through the aesthetic qualities that we appreciate in them. These qualities account not only for formal aspects of works of art, but also for their descriptive, representational, and expressive content, and explain, at least in part, how and why we find them valuable, or not. Thereby, beyond discussing the role that they might play in art definition, a more urgent question now addresses the possible contribution of aesthetic qualities to the understanding and appreciation of artworks. Hence, in order to answer the question, the nature and critical relevance of aesthetic qualities must be examined as well as the conception of the experience in which they are sustained.
That is the central aim of our project and, from here, other research lines open in relation to aesthetic experience and the normative possibilities of aesthetic judgement. Questions of this sort have become relevant in recent aesthetics concerning not just art but also aesthetics of nature, design, or the everyday.
Our project will not ignore this expansion provided by contemporary debates yet we will pay special attention to the artworld, where much skepticism still remains. We are aware that to contest it, new and broader non-formalist views of the aesthetic as well as of perception are necessary. They should contemplate the relationships between perception and other imaginative, affective and cognitive faculties, offering an account capable also of coping with the historical and cultural aspects that constitute the richness and complexity of aesthetic experience and perception.
By following these lines, our research hopes to contribute to one of the most important debates in contemporary aesthetics, located at the very center of the discipline, and with implications for art criticism.
The Project is financed by Comunidad Autónoma de la Región de Murcia through the funding projects for the development of scientific and technical research by competitive groups, included in the Programa Regional de Fomento de la Investigación (Plan de Actuación 2019) of the Fundación Séneca, Agencia de Ciencia y Tecnología de la Región de Murcia.
Aesthetic experience of the arts and the complexity of perception
The critique of the aesthetic conception of art, on the one hand, alongside the critique of the Kantian notion of aesthetic experience as non-conceptual and disinterested, on the other hand, has led to a re-examining of the very notion of aesthetic experience in recent decades. Certain authors, such as Alan Goldman, defend a broader notion of aesthetic experience that holds that the pleasure that characterizes the experience arises from the “free play” of our mental capabilities, sensitive, imaginative, affective and intellectual, and, they therefore consider that the participation of perception is not necessary. On the contrary, authors such as Nick Zangwill or Peter Kivy defend a narrower view of aesthetic experience that holds the perceptual content as essential to it. The main argument of the latter authors is that the defining feature of aesthetic pleasure lies in the perceptual and disinterested character of the experienced content. Given that conceptual art and literature are paradigmatic examples of artistic activities in which the sensory properties of the objects are not determinant for their interpretation and appreciation, their artistic value, either it is non-aesthetic, or it is aesthetic in a wide sense.
In our most recent projects, this team has defended the key role that aesthetic experience plays in the forming of aesthetic judgement and in the determination of the value of the arts. It has been done from a broad view of aesthetic experience. In this project, we would like to address the role of perception in the aesthetic experience of the arts. The reason is that perhaps imagination has attained excessive importance in the aesthetic reflection in visual arts and literature. The influence of the theory of mimesis as make-believe (Walton), which allows the gathering together of all representational arts, is responsible for it to a great extent. As the make-believe theory, the simulation theory, the “thought” theory, and the theory of fiction as a communicative act have benefited from a wide conception of imagination that can explain fiction as not asserted, but imagined, content, on the one hand, and affective experience, as a rational reply, determined by the imagined propositional content, on the other. The cognitive theory of cinema is one clear example of the predominance of this view.
Our hypothesis is that a wider view of perception could frame more clearly the role of imagination, firstly in the explanation of the understanding of the visual arts, secondly in the explanation of the understanding of literature and lastly in the aesthetic experience as an experience that includes normative judgement. For this we need to establish what the content of the perceptual experience is in every case, because the debate is largely influenced by the dispute between a more restricted content and a wider one. We would like to defend that the expressive, moral, character of the represented objects is perceptual and it does not need an imaginative interpretation.
Vindicating the key role of the perceptual in aesthetic experience would allow us, in the first place, to justify the importance of the artistic object in the interpretation and appreciation of the arts and, secondly, to recover the original sense of aesthetic experience as experience of the world and the cognitive value of art.
Salvador Rubio Marco (UMU) is a member of the Research Project “Aesthetics Unlimited”, funded by the Government of Denmark and the participation of Denmark’s five universities, The Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Denmark, Museum of Contemporary Art of Roskilde, the University of Sophia-Antipolis of Nice, the University of Milan, the University of Lovain, and the University of Murcia. https://aestheticsunlimited.ruc.dk
The project funs the Séminaire d’Esthétique Européen-European Seminar of Aesthetics