Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is Perception Necessary for Aesthetic Experience?

Amir Konigsberg has published an article, "The Acquaintance Principle, Aesthetic Autonomy, and Aesthetic Appreciation"  British Journal of Aesthetics 52:2 (2012) 153-168  in which he argues that perception is not necessary for aesthetic experience.  This is not a controversial view when it comes to aesthetic properties of scientific laws or mathematical theorems.  However Konigsberg's interest focuses on conceptual art.  Part of the issue is whether we can trust the testimony of others with respect to aesthetic qualities.  Here, I would agree with Konigsberg that if someone I respect tells me that a movie or a work of visual art is aesthetically good then I will have some reason to believe it is aesthetically good.  If the film critics on the Rotten Tomatoes web site tell me I should see a particular film, I will take them seriously.  I will assume they know what they are talking about and will therefore assume that it is probably a good film.  Since I tend to like the same sorts of films film critics like then I'll probably like this one too.

However Konigsberg also argues that "in some domains the perception of the aesthetic object appears to be inconsequential to its aesthetic appreciation" and he believes that Conceptual Art is such a domain.  He starts with Robert Rauschenberg's "Erased De Kooning" (1953) (and I will limit my comments to this example) in which Rauschenberg spent a month erasing a work by the famous painter De Kooning and then presented the result as his own work.  The canvas, as Konigsberg observes, is almost white with faint traces of ink and crayon.  I have observed this work, which is owned by the San Francisco Museum of Art.  I should note that the work is also recognizable as a De Kooning. (You might just be able to see this if you look at the highest resolution reproduction available on the internet.)  Konigsberg thinks that we do not have to see this work to properly appreciate it.  It only needs to be described.  I feel uncomfortable with this position.  I do think that having a work of conceptual art described to me can induce in me an appreciation of the thought behind the work.  However, I am hesitant to say that I could really appreciate the work as a work of visual art without actually seeing it.  Konigsberg thinks the entire content of "Erased de Kooning" is non-perceptual.  It is true that in order to appreciate "Erased de Kooning" properly I need to know something about it.  It is also true that as I learn more about this work it comes to look different to me.  But this is true for a Rembrandt as well.  The fact is that whenever I experience a work of art the perceptual aspect of my experience is going to be influenced by what I know about it as well as what I am prompted by it to imagine.  So I do not understand Konigsberg's idea that one inquires into background knowledge to get the "non-perceptual meaning...of the perceptual object."  The background information informs the perceptual meaning of the object.  Moreover, it is a perceptual to say that it has "non-perceptual meaning" does not make much sense.  So I wonder whether it is true that "there are aesthetic experiences [of works of art] in which perception is unimportant."  Konigsberg thinks that "no important information about Rauschenberg's piece is presented in the way it looks..."  But it seems to me that getting information about the piece is not the same as appreciating it.  It is important to see the piece because the way it looks (including how it looks to us when we have a lot of knowledge about its origins) is essential to the piece.  I suspect that Konigsberg has not even seen this piece since he does not mention, for example, that it looks like an erased de Kooning.  He probably thinks there is no point in actually seeing the piece.  But isn't this a problem?  I say you cannot appreciate "Erased de Kooning" until you have seen it:  just having it described to you provides nothing more than appreciation of the thought behind it.  Here is where our intuitions (Konigsberg's and mine) diverge radically.  Whereas Konigsberg thinks it would be "bizarre" to "come up close and appreciate" this work, I think it would be bizarre not to do this:  if you are really going to apprehend the artwork you need to actually spend some time looking at it...and since it is a small work, and the effects are subtle, then coming up close is necessary in this case.  That's at least what I did when I saw the work.  Konigsberg thinks it is a matter of choice between "considering the patterns left over" after the erasure and "appreciating the painting's absence."  He chooses the latter.  However, I believe it is not a choice at all:  you should consider the erasure of the original painting by de Kooning as your look at and consider the patterns left over after Rauschenberg's act of erasure.  Konigsberg thinks I am "missing the point" but in fact he is missing the point.  "Erased de Kooning" is, after all, a work of art put on display in a museum. It is related intimately to a body of work of Rauschenberg all of which is made with the intention that people perceptually contemplated it.  Such works are intended to be looked at, not just thought about.  Konigsberg says "if there is aesthetic value to de Kooning's piece, it resides in the background knowledge we have about it, not in what we see in it."  (164)  This strikes me as doubly bizarre:  first, this is not de Kooning's piece, but Rauschenberg's piece, a piece based on a former piece by de Kooning. (I suspect that this is just an editorial mistake...but it is one that reveals a lot.)  Second, if the aesthetic value would just be in the background knowledge then reading about the piece, say in Konigsberg's article, would be sufficient... but it is not.  Konigsberg asks his readers to say whether what he has said about the piece elicits an aesthetic experience of the piece and whether the aesthetic experience would be the same kind as they would get through perceptual experience of the piece.  Perhaps there would be an aesthetic experience (we can find thoughts beautiful for example) but it would not be the same kind of experience since it would not be an experience of a visual work of art.

1 comment:

Altoon Sultan said...

I totally agree with your argument!!
For another example: Sol LeWitt has instructions on how to make each of his wall drawings. We could just read the instructions and think we know the work, but the physical presence how it's carried out changes our experience of it and completes it. It must be perceived in order to fully appreciate it.